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Unemployment looms over many this season

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on December 22, 2002.

The people who walk into Anna Brost-Gibson's office are rarely happy -- and the holiday season does little to help. In fact, the faces that Brost-Gibson, who works at the local unemployment office, sees are a little longer, a little sadder, this time of the year.

"They're depressed that they lost their job and even more depressed that they lost it at the holidays," she said. "They feel a little more desperate to get a job."

This holiday season, as the economy continues to stagnate, layoffs have hit the Jacksonville area harder than at any other time this year: CSX Transportation, Humana, Aetna, Alterman Transportation, Bank of America and Tyson Foods all recently announced plans to cut jobs over the next few months, with close to 1,300 workers being notified in the past few weeks that the new year will bring with it the need to look for work.

Southeast Georgia has been struck by its own economic blight, with about 900 workers at the Durango-Georgia paper mill told of layoffs in September.

Most of the Jacksonville-area workers will finish out the year in their current jobs. But they'll be going through the holiday season with the spectre of unemployment looming closer. Then, in just a few weeks, they'll enter a rather rough job market.

"It looks grim," said Robert Johnson, a career consultant and author of How To Find a Job in Jacksonville. "If you're a college-educated person looking for jobs paying $35,000 and up, it's going to be challenging."

Looking solely at employment numbers, Jacksonville's economy actually appears a bit stronger than last year: On Dec. 13, 14,047 people in Duval County were receiving unemployment benefits, according to state officials, slightly less than the number of people without jobs last year. Overall, a net total of 4,700 obs were created in Clay, Duval, St. Johns and Nassau counties from October 2001 to October 2002, a growth of 0.8 percent. Statewide, more jobs have been created than lost in each of the past four months.

"We're the only state in the country who can say that," said Warren May, spokesman for the Agency for Workforce Innovation, which handles unemployment claims. "All the forecasts are for increasing rates of job growth -- and Jacksonville's economy is among the most robust in the state."

Such figures are cold comfort, of course, for the workers who will spend the next few weeks cleaning out their desks and their lockers. And with many of the vanishing jobs being in higher-paid fields, it might turn out to be especially difficult for laid-off workers to find jobs in the same pay scale.

Over the past year, for example, Job Junction, the workforce development arm of Goodwill of North Florida, placed 4,500 workers with employers, up from the 4,100 the agency placed last year. Of the 451 workers who found jobs through Goodwill last month, 60 percent got jobs earning less than $8.50 an hour; about half of the workers ended up in a service-related field, while 21 percent were in sales, 19 percent in construction and 8 percent in manufacturing.

"It's true that more jobs are being created than lost," Johnson said, "but it's not the number of jobs, it's the quality."

As well as dealing with economic difficulties, unemployed workers also pay a psychological price.

"The adverse effects on emotional and mental well-being are not short-lived," said Arthur Goldsmith, head of the department of economics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "They're not blemishes; they're more scar-like. They're more serious than most people think."

Laid-off workers can suffer self-esteem problems for up to two years, said Goldsmith, who's published a number of articles on unemployment and psychological well-being. Layoffs also affect the mental state of workers who keep their jobs, making them prone to worry about their own jobs, feel guilty about remaining employed and become less committed to their employers.

"It's even worse when it's on a broad scale," such as the shutdown of Tyson's Jacksonville-area operations, the professor said. "You get a lot more spill-over effects."

Jacksonville, it must be said, has dealt with such effects before.

"There's a continual churning of the economy locally," said Jim Crooks, former chairman of the history department at the University of North Florida. "The diversity has helped us survive those changes."

Fifty years ago, for example, Jacksonville was known as the "Insurance Capital of the Southeast" -- a title it lost when three big insurance companies shut their doors due to mergers and bankruptcies. Banking was the town's major industry in the 1980s -- then Barnett and Florida National were gobbled up by larger banks. Twenty years ago, medical-related businesses weren't a major segment of the economy: Now, the small hospitals have shut their doors while medical behemoths like Shands and Mayo have risen to prominence.

The number of semi-skilled jobs enables workers to find similar positions -- albeit low-paying ones -- relatively easily when layoffs occur, said the historian, who's written a book on Jacksonville's history.

"It's a low-wage town," Crooks said, "with a lot of back-office components. Some move out, some move in: People can just transition into another low-wage office job."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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