Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Unemployed? Florida lawmakers want you to work for free

Picture this scenario:

Your longtime job of 10 years laid you off. You were making an honest $40,000. Suddenly, you’re thrown into the same lot as thousands of other Floridians — unemployed with no job prospects. Hesitant, you apply for unemployment benefits. A few weeks later, you receive a check for $275. You look for work, online and off, unsuccessfully. After two months, belts tighten more. Your meager savings is almost depleted. The bills are piling up. You stop driving around filling out random applications, trying to save the gas for actual interviews or referrals.

Then, one morning while drinking day-old coffee, you read in the local newspaper that the Florida Legislature has mandated that you find an organization and work for them. For free. No money for gas or child care.

Call it volunteering.

That’s the latest unemployment-related bill — that does nothing to fix unemployment, by the way — from state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican.  She’s the sponsor of HB 509, which is currently in the Economic Development & Tourism Subcommittee.

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10 lessons I learned from unemployment

Department Of Labor Hosts Job Fair For Veterans At U.S.S. Intrepid

So my long lapse of unemployment has ended. No, I’m not writing news again — just product descriptions for a few well-known online retailers. Not the ideal job, but in this economy, I’d be lucky to have a job at Taco Bell.

So, how do I feel? One part relieved, two parts depressed and another half-part anxious. The latter comes from a feeling I’ll always have after my first lay-off: This could happen again. In fact, my current employer already seems a little shaky; they laid off 8 people just last week.

Anyway, I’ve been working for a few weeks now and I’ve had some time to reflect on my year of unemployment. What have I learned?

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The story behind the Christmas Card

Every year, I send out a Christmas card. But I try and send something a little less like the traditional, boring here’s-my-baby/dog/family-for-your-enjoyment. Last year, I sent out a picture greeting card featuring an ex-marine waterboarding me. A few years before that, I sent out a photo and story about my night inside an inflatable newspaper costume. The year before that, well, let’s just say I have a lifetime ban from that coffeeshop. So, in keeping with my Gonzo tradition, here is the story behind the Christmas card:

So there I was – standing in front of a dozen Pennsylvania police officers in full riot gear, clubs and tear gas ready, with only a press pass to protect me. And even if that press pass was real, reporter credentials didn’t mean anything on the fortified streets of Pittsburgh.

Just minutes earlier, another phalanx of riot cops charged a group of protesters and bystanders a few blocks over. And that was just minutes after police rolled out L-RAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) — a crowd-control device strapped to a military truck that emits a piercing, debilitating tone. This was the first time such a device had been used in the United States.

Yep, the G20 Conference was underway and for the last six weeks, Pittsburgh city officials and the media had scared residents into allowing a small version of a police state right on the banks of the Allegheny River.

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Florida’s extended (extended) unemployment benefits: The good, the bad, the ugly

First, the good news for my unemployed brothers and sisters:

Due to stagnant (and in some cases, rising) unemployment throughout the country, the Obama Administration approved another round of extended benefits for laid-off Americans earlier this month. Although there is confusion surrounding who will actually get these benefits, under the best case scenerio, unemployed Floridians will receive 20 more weeks of benefits to help you get through another four months of job searching.

Well, some of us will receive those benefits (about 250,000 according to the St. Petersburg Times). Which brings me to the bad news.

If you already exhausted your benefits before the bill was passed on Nov. 6, you probably aren’t eligible (although the state says you can apply).  Also, only those Floridians who will run out of all benefits between Nov. 6 and Dec. 27 qualify for the extra weeks.

There is a lot of confusion on who qualifies for the new extension and since the state unemployment office doesn’t make much sense explaining it, they’ve set up a webpage for you to check if you qualify (click on the button that says “Check your eligibility).

That fine print has some advocacy groups upset. The National Employment Law Center just released a study that found over a million American workers will be ineligible for benefits in January 2010. Federal workers have it worse; they estimate over three million of those workers will remain unemployed.

But things get uglier.

The state has already run out of the money to pay for benefits, partly due to the Florida Legislature’s inane idea to not accept federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance. So, as unemployment rises to record levels, there is another cloud on the horizon. Due to a clause in state law, businesses will be taxed extra for unemployment benefits next year. And by “extra,” I’m mean a tax hike approaching 120 percent, which I’m sure can’t be good for companies barely keeping afloat.

Talk about a vicious circle.

Florida unemployment news: The good, the bad and the ugly

First, the good news: Florida’s unemployment rate has not risen for the second month in a row. Now the bad: The state’s unemployment rate hangs at nearly 11 percent, the worst it has been since 1975. The ugly news? Florida’s unemployment trust fund ran out of money this week.

Don’t worry — yet. The federal government is advancing money to the state government to help pay for benefits, but considering the mounting debt up in Washington — and state Republicans too proud to take any federal money — who knows how long that will last.

Out of Work Journalists: Ever thought of street performing?

IMG_6186I have a fascination with street performers. The more in a locale, the more I love the city. There is just something so Renaissance about musicians laying down the soundtrack to your town. So, obviously, I also love the musicians in the New York subway system.

Well, Simon Owens of Bloggasm sent me a link to one of his posts about a street musician in the New York subways. But what really piqued my interest was this particular performer is an unemployed journalist like myself.

From Owens’ blog:

McGookin took a severance package from his journalism job at Forbes.com about a year ago, and since then has proceeded to burn through his savings while looking for further employment. Like the thousands of other out-of-work journalists that are trying to find jobs in a shrinking industry, he hasn’t come up with any offers. So not long ago he decided that he wanted to try an experiment: for years he had been fascinated by the culture of performers that roam the underground of New York; he watched them play on his daily commute and sometimes even stopped to talk to them and give them money. What if he decided to join them?

The post is really good and offers a link to McGookin’s own blog that details his daily experiences underground in NYC. I highly recommend checking it out.

(BTW, That’s my photo from a recent trip to NYC)

Unemployment? Naw, FUNemployment

unemployedposter

Last week, I linked to an article about “funemployment” on my news reel to the left of this post (SIGNS of the times … unemployed panhandler … Get it!?!), but I wanted to blow it out a bit more in case you missed it.

From the L.A. Times:

Michael Van Gorkom was laid off by Yahoo in late April. He didn’t panic. He didn’t rush off to a therapist. Instead, the 33-year-old Santa Monica resident discovered that being jobless “kind of settled nicely.”

Week one: “I thought, ‘OK . . . I need to send out resumes, send some e-mails, need to do networking.”

Week two: “A little less.”

Every week since: “I’m going to go to the beach and enjoy some margaritas.”

What most people would call unemployment, Van Gorkom embraced as “funemployment.”

While millions of Americans struggle to find work as they face foreclosures and bankruptcy, others have found a silver lining in the economic meltdown. These happily jobless tend to be single and in their 20s and 30s. Some were laid off. Some quit voluntarily, lured by generous buyouts.

Buoyed by severance, savings, unemployment checks or their parents, the funemployed do not spend their days poring over job listings. They travel on the cheap for weeks. They head back to school or volunteer at the neighborhood soup kitchen. And at least till the bank account dries up, they’re content living for today.

“I feel like I’ve been given a gift of time and clarity,” said Aubrey Howell, 29, of Franklin, Tenn., who was laid off from her job as a tea shop manager in April. After sleeping in late and visiting family in Florida, she recently mused on Twitter: “Unemployment or funemployment?”

Never heard of funemployment? Here’s Urban Dictionary’s definition: “The condition of a person who takes advantage of being out of a job to have the time of their life. I spent all day Tuesday at the pool; funemployment rocks!”

The article goes on for several more graphs with the predictable “my parents don’t like it” quotes and outlines some of the crazy adventures of the laid-off, including embarking on a “spiritual quest” in Asia. Something tells me he’s not just living off of unemployment benefits.

But I’ve told many of my friends and family that, in some ways, my layoff is the best thing to have happened to me in years. As some of those interviewed in the L.A. Times article say, I feel healthier, happier and more like myself. And I’m using this chance to do more things for me, like learning how to ride a bike, updating my Internet skills and taking a few vacations. All on the cheap and while looking for jobs online, of course.

I especially think this is a cardinal rule for unemployed journalists: Use this time wisely. We’re undergoing tough changes to our industry. After years of working 50-60 hours a week for news, we need this “lay-cation” to recharge and prepare for what happens next. I think many of us will be better reporters because of it.

I’d love to hear from other unemployed folk on how they are spending their days off. Just leave a comment below …

(Big thanks to Saint Petersblog 2.0 for the link)

Did you really have to lay me off?

Do Florida employers really have to lay off so many workers during this recession?

Perhaps not, says Sheri McWhorter, president of the local company Workplace Legal Solutions and a certified member of the Florida Bar. In an article for the Bay Area Business Magazine, McWhorter cites a little known provision in Florida unemployment law that allows companies to reduce employee work hours while the state gives those employees pro-rated unemployment compensation to make up for the lost money.

It’s called Short Term Compensation and it might actually save some companies money in the long run.

Here’s a snippet:

Florida is one of 18 states in the country offering a Short Time Compensation (STC) program to assist employers in reducing payroll costs, while keeping their workforce intact.  Under the STC program, employers reduce employees’ work hours by between 10 and 40%, and employees receive prorated unemployment benefits to help replace earnings lost due to the reduced work schedule.  The goal of this voluntary employer program is to help businesses reduce payroll costs during the down economy by using unemployment benefits to offset the cost of full time wages, while allowing them to maintain their workforce rather than laying off full-time employees.  This way, when the economy improves, employers can increase the work hours of their existing employees rather than having to recruit and hire new employees, which may also help reduce future recruitment and training costs.

STC plans provide an alternative to layoffs by enabling businesses to apportion payroll reductions across a larger group of employees than they would have in the absence of an STC plan.  For example, rather than lay off 20% of its workforce, an employer might reduce the work hours of its entire workforce by 20% (i.e. move from a 5 day to a 4 day workweek).

Read the rest of the article here.


Unemployment benefits or food stamps?

That’s a choice the government has already made for some jobless folks.

From The Consumerist:

The economic recovery plan includes a nice little $25 a week bump for unemployed folks — but for some it comes with a catch — they no longer qualify for hundreds of dollars a month in food stamp benefits. Whoopsies!

It seems that when the government raised the unemployment benefits — they forgot to raise the income cap for food stamp eligibility — and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Florida throws a bone: Extended benefits to the unemployed

If you’re unemployed like me, you’ve probably heard about the extended benefits program for Florida’s jobless, mostly likely while waiting on the Agency for Workforce Innovation phone line. So, you are probably — like me — completely freakin’ confused about the whole thing. How do I apply? How many weeks do I get? Any extra requirements?

Here’s the short answers:

You apply either by mail (the state will send you application) or at the online site you normally claim your benefits from after you’ve exhausted the normal benefit limit. You get up to 20 weeks, provided you don’t find a job before then. There are no extra qualifications, but you may be asked to provide proof that you’ve been looking for work at least twice a week. If you have all those e-mails, letters and application copies saved on your computer, now is a good time to compile them.

I don’t have time to put all the details in Alex-speak, but I hope the following couple links help you out:

  • FAQ by the state. This has a little bit more info about your work requirements.

Florida unemployment office’s 35-year-old computer down

Who knows if the ancient system used to process payments for Florida’s 250,000 unemployed workers has finally kicked the bucket. But over the last two days, while trying to fill my claim, the online system has given me a peculiar error message:

unemployment screen shot copy

I tried calling this morning and the automated phone system tells me the computer is “down.” WTF?! I’m hoping this is somehow related to the positive changes at the Agency for Workforce Innovation. To handle a huge influx of calls over the last 18 months, the state is outsourcing some work to an Orlando call center. Hopefully, I say. Because if the state’s unemployment benefits computer database crashed, we’re going to have some angry, broke people in the streets. Including me.

If anybody has some clues as to what’s going on, please comment below.

Advice for fellow unemployed journalists at WFLA and the Tampa Tribune

Another round of layoffs for our friends at Media General. The Tampa Bay Business Journal reports that the company eliminated 17 Tribune positions and six from WFLA. As recently as March, the Tribune let go dozens of employees and those left must take nearly two week vacations this summer.

So welcome to the club, boys and girls. So what the hell are you going to do now?

First, join a community of journalists in a similar situation. Right now, I’m particularly fond of Jilted Journalists. Maybe it’s just because the name sums up my feelings on the whole unemployment thing. (h/t to Virtual Journalist for the link.)

Next, apply for the dole. But figure you’ll only get $300 a week at most.

Then, start looking for jobs. If you’re thinking about government work, I have one piece of advice: Don’t take postal service jobs from private companies promising you sample exams and study guides. With all the layoffs, the feds are seeing more of these scams. Get more info here.

(Oh, and if you’re thinking of moving to some hip town and becoming an alt-weekly writer, I’ve got some bad news.)

Now you need some extra money. Check out the latest list of class-action lawsuits. You, too, could get a few bucks in the mail.

In the meantime, you’re going to need to save some money. So, join one of those food warehouse memberships for a 60-day free trial and spend your severance on snacks for the next year. You’re gonna need it.

Finally, join the blogosphere! Come on, all the other reporters are doing it! Believe me, there’s nothing like embracing the technology that destroyed your life’s career. Good luck!

There’s a whole lot more unemployed journalists in Florida

Bob Norman of the Broward County New Times has the latest on the staff cuts at the Sun-Sentinel:

I got Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman on the phone in Chicago, and all he would give me were corporate platitudes. “We are constantly trying to improve the business model,” he told me. “We are doing a number of things to be efficient across the company. Getting into the nitty gritty details is not something I’m going to do.”

He told me to call Jennifer Sacks, the Sentinel spokeswoman. She told me that whatever was happening in classifieds was something she couldn’t “expand on.”

Isn’t it great how the Sun-Sentinel is so accountable to the public about what’s going on? For them, it’s all about sunlight, openness, and the power of the truth — as long as it’s another company.

Check out the list on his blog here. He’s also got an item up about layoffs at the smaller Palm Beach Daily News.

Wave of ‘Why lie? Need a beer’ signs hit Florida

2451061714_bcffa8797bOh, those enterprising homeless.

Every day in St. Petersburg, I see at least a dozen panhandlers on area roads with various signs asking for help and money. They may not be creative — “Hungry,” “Jobless,” “Laid Off” — but they know a good sign when they see it.

The latest is the “Why Lie? Need a beer/drink” sign. It’s making rounds of the state this month. I’ll tell you: It was funny the first time I saw it. Now it hardly elicits a chuckle from me. Can our local bums come up with something better?

Anyway, the latest sign maker is a flagrant vagrant from Fort Walton Beach, who was recently arrested with the sign.

(Photo Credit: Steve Isaacs/Flickr)

New credit card rules great for the unemployed

2007-593-credit-card-size

There’s been a lot of buzz about the new credit card bill that moved through Congress and is heading to President Obama to sign. Right-wing talk radio has made much hoopla of the changes; their rallying cry is good credit consumers will subsidize the bad. Even some news reports have made the same statement. (Back to that argument later.)

But for the jobless, this bill will give some much needed relief, from banning the practice of raising interest rates on existing balances and double-cycle billing. Here’s a rundown of the proposed changes:

  • Companies can no longer charge consumers for paying their bills by phone;
  • Creditors cannot raise your APR in the first 12 months of a new account;
  • Promotional rates must last at least six months;
  • No longer can your interest rate on existing balances increase unless you fail to pay for 60 days;
  • Payments must be applied to the balance with the highest APR first;
  • Credit card bills must be sent at least 21 days before the due date;
  • Companies must give 45 days notice before changing your rates or fees;
  • Credit card statements must be told how long it will take to pay off their balance if they only pay the minimum amount due;
  • Creditors must remove any info given to a consumer reporting agency (Equifax, Experion, etc.) about new accounts if that card has not been used or activated within 45 days;
  • The legislation bans double-cycling billing.

The new rules will probably help some people who have gotten behind on their credit card and have the means to pay it off. I, for one, don’t agree with the argument that the bill makes good credit holders pay for the bad. It’s entirely the choice of credit card companies to raise rates on the good consumers. They are choosing that option, so they can continue to enjoy enormous profit margins.

Of course, my ultimate advice is for everyone to cut up their credit cards. But, hey, that’s just me.

Unemployed journalist rule #1: Get copies of your work immediately!

As any motivated journalist knows, our “clips” — copies of our work for media outlets — are the single most important possession in order to advance our careers. New employers ask for them, current employers review them before giving promotions. Especially in this media downward spiral, our clips are more important than ever.

So what the hell do you do when your employer destroys them?

My friend and former co-worker Anthony Salveggi has a great post up on his site concerning a “reporter’s worst nightmare.” He links to a story about a former International Herald Tribune writer who lost all the online links to his work when the New York Times merged the two paper’s websites:

… my entire journalistic career at the IHT – from war zones to SARS wards – has been erased.

In the past, reporters would photocopy their articles from the newspaper. But in this digital climate, when some stories never make it to print and live only online, more and more editors request digital copies of prospective employee’s work. And the New York Times just royally screwed this guy, well-respected reporter Thomas Crampton.

Turns out, the IHT isn’t the only paper to delete employees’ work. After Crampton detailed the incident on his blog, other reporters wrote to vent their own frustration about losing years of work instantly. From Fortune magazine and Time’s AsiaWeek to all of Knight-Ridder’s local newspaper websites, hundreds of reporters have seen their work disappear.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Get digital copies of your work! Within a week of leaving Creative Loafing, I had both paper and PDF copies of my best stories. (You can find a few examples in my About Me section.) Try to compile your clips as you write them.

Of course, that won’t help all future readers find your content in the future, but it will save you much hand-wringing down the line.

Tools for the unemployed

Just a few things I found so far this week:

Looking for a job? Some say these are the next growth industries.

I’m not sure why my personal e-mail is accessible to public relations folks. I thought I left those e-mails and messages behind when I left Creative Loafing. *sigh*

Nonetheless, sometimes I do get something useful and interesting from those PR folks. Like this handy image from Billshrink.com:

billshrink_dot_com

Unemployent: ‘Yup. It sucks.’

A fellow blogger posted a link about me on their website a while back (thanks!) and in the same post, referenced another unemployed journalist: Christine.

I’ve been fairly lucky receiving my unemployment benefits for the first time, so it has been hard for me to offer advice here. But Christine, apparently, has been through the ringer dealing with our antiquated unemployment system:

The majority of you will be forced to navigate your way through this governmental body’s miles of red tape and voice mail. You will spend anywhere from 35 minutes to 15 hours a month on the phone or computer fighting for your unemployment compensation money. And when you do finally get a check, it will hurt your feelings. If this is the only income you are receiving, there’s no possibility of retaining the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.

Yup. It sucks.

Read the rest here.

I’m really interested in your own stories, too.

Fear and loathing in the newsroom: How one editor copes

Great column from Tom Huang over at Poynter Online. Huang is an editor for the Dallas Morning News, and recently had to deal with layoffs at his newspaper.

A snippet:

A few days after the layoffs in Dallas, I talked with Jill Geisler, who runs Poynter’s leadership program.
We agreed that it’s hard to be a newsroom leader in these times. Not that we deserve much sympathy, or expect to get it. Reserve that sympathy for those who are forced out of jobs they love, as well as for those who remain and feel trapped.

What I told Jill is this: Every time I mask my anger and sadness with feigned calm and confidence, I lose a bit of my integrity. Every time I feel numb, I lose a bit of what makes me human. Every time I say goodbye to a friend, I lose a piece of my heart.

It’s our human side that makes us good journalists, isn’t it?

And so, it seems to me, our greatest challenge is that we stay human, as flawed as we may be, even as we walk toward our uncertain future.

Layoffs, Furloughs impact Gannett and Sun-Sentinel

The ranks of unemployed journalists swell again this week as The Ann Arbor News announced plans to close shop and South Florida’s Sun Sentinel gives pink slips to two well-respected columnists. Get those cardboard signs ready, folks.

In addition, the huge Gannett newspaper chain told employees they will be forced to take another week-long furlough. Better than losing your job, right?

As far as furloughs go, reporters should look into his or her state’s unemployment laws. In Florida, you can claim those weeks of forced vacation. You don’t get anything for the first week, but — if you meet certain conditions — any subsequent weeks can be claimed. Unfortunately, it looks like Gannett is spreading out those weeks, which could impact your eligibility.

More on that subject here.

South Florida journalists band together to help fellow laid-off reporters

Reporters don’t curry much favor with the public. So it’s no surprise that, during this economic downturn, laid-off journalists don’t get the same sympathy as, say, unemployed police officers or veterans. As newspapers across the country downsize, or outright cease to exist, who will help the unemployed journalists? Other journalists, of course!

Enter Stacy Singer. After watching friend after friend get the ax, the Palm Beach Post reporter decided to create a nonprofit that would provide short-term aid to laid-off reporters. She’s calling it “After the Jump.” Singer has already put the word out to several news organizations and has the support of the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Broward New Times reporter Bob Norman has the full text of Singer’s call to action on his blog, The Daily Pulp.

A worthy effort. If only we had a Stacy Singer here in Tampa Bay . . .

Proposed Florida law seeks drug testing for the unemployed …

statesenatorbennett. . . Because, obviously, everyone on unemployment in this bountiful economy are unmotivated, crack-smoking losers.

SB 2062 would require Floridians collecting unemployment benefits to undergo random drug testing. To top it off, they would have to pay for their own test.

This slap in the face comes courtesy of Florida State Senator Michael S. Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton. He’s 64, Baptist and hails from the Midwest. Besides finding ways to demean laid-off workers, Bennett enjoys long walks on Siesta Key, gutting smart growth initiatives, running retirees out of trailer parks for fun and profit, and — well, looky here — taking campaign donations from a company that sells drug testing kits (h/t to the Raw Story for pointing that out).

In addition to the obvious constitutional issues, Bennett’s law faces some problems of practicality. Even though workers would pay for their own drug tests, our cash-strapped state would need to invest in clinicians and a whole new bureaucracy inside the Agency for Workforce Innovation. But most of all, SB 2062 (HB 969 in the Florida House) furthers the humiliation many workers feel after losing their jobs.

In the words of Bill Piper, a director for the Drug Policy Alliance: “. . . to require someone to pass a drug test to get their unemployment insurance after they’ve been laid off is pretty cruel — and to require them to pay for the test themselves is even more cruel.”

The complete outrageousness of this bill leads me to wonder what Bennett and Co. are smoking up there in Tallahassee. In the interest of finding out what that substance may be, I propose a compromise:

Under only one circumstance should SB 2062 become law — if an amendment is added that requires the random drug testing of state lawmakers.

I nominate Bennett to take the first one.

Florida, St. Petersburg unveil stimulus websites

criststimulusBarack Obama’s most ardent Republican supporter, Florida’s Charlie Crist, finally released a website detailing where federal stimulus funds will go. Florida is not the first state,  nor the last. There’s isn’t much on the site now except for some photos, FAQ and various letters from the Guv. But once the federal funds pour in, this site could get real interesting. Check it out here.

Following his hometown governing friend, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announced a similar website for the city. Though there isn’t much information on there now about how much St. Pete will get, it does detail the grants available. Check it out here.

So how does this help you? Once you see where the funds are going, you can track where the jobs will be created.