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Being Jobless for Months ‘Grinds on You’

FORT MYERS, FLA. - When Mike Cannington lost his job as marketing director for a chain of motorcycle dealerships in August of 2008, he figured he'd find a new one within a few weeks.

He'd spent 16 years in marketing and once led the local chamber of commerce. "I thought there'd be a job out there for me," he says.

But his wife, Stacey, was laid off in November, and by January, Mike was still out of work. "I was scared," says Cannington, 51. "I realized it's going to be really hard to get a job."

Recently, he's had to fight off darker thoughts, sometimes wondering if he'll ever work again. "You sit there and you say, 'What's it going to take?' says the burly and affable former TV sports anchor. "You don't see a light at the end of the tunnel."

Cannington is among thousands of people in Fort Myers and millions nationwide who have been out of work six months or longer during this bruising recession. Nationwide, the number of long-term unemployed people hit a record 5.4 million in September, or 35.6% of the jobless.

Fort Myers has been hit especially hard because of Southwest Florida's real estate and construction bust. Chronic unemployment has hobbled area businesses, burdened social services and severed relationships.

"It's all over the place," says Warren Schirado, who leads a job search support group here.

In Fort Myers and across the USA, the swelling ranks of the long-term unemployed can have a far-reaching impact, reducing productivity and consumer spending even after the economy recovers, says Cary Leahey of Decision Economics, a New York-based research firm.

Many of those idled, especially older people, won't work again or will have to accept cuts in pay or lower-level jobs. The rub: The longer someone is out of work, the more likely he or she will continue to be. Skills erode; gaps on résumés widen.

Unemployment in the Fort Myers metro area, population 623,725, was 13.5% in August. In the year ending in June, an average 30% of Florida's jobless were out of work at least six months, while 16% were idled at least a year, both @among the highest rates in the nation, the Labor Department says. Long-term joblessness is worse in Fort Myers, though figures are unavailable, says Florida's Agency For Workforce Innovation.

This Gulf Coast tourist hub was booming during the middle of the decade, fueled by forecasts that retiring Baby Boomers would flood the region. Construction soared. Home values nearly doubled from 2004 to 2005 as speculators bid up prices, says local Realtor Denny Grimes.

When the bubble burst, the area fell hard, as the real estate and construction bust rippled out to other industries. Many of the construction jobs that vanished won't return for years, says Rebecca Rust, economist for the state workforce agency. That exacerbates long-term unemployment, much like the loss of auto assembly jobs in Detroit and finance positions in New York.

Intensifying the problem nationwide is a reluctance by many employers to hire again until they're convinced the economy is on firm footing. Also, many of the chronically unemployed are hesitant to move to find a job because they don't want to sell their homes at a big loss, says Harvard University economics professor Lawrence Katz. That dilemma is even more pronounced in Fort Myers, where home values are down 50% from their 2006 peak.

'We're out of money'

The carnage is visible on the palm-tree-lined streets of this sprawling city.

On U.S. Highway 41, the main commercial drag, many strip shopping centers are pockmarked with empty storefronts. A bus-stop bench advertises foreclosure tours. Along the riverfront downtown, the twin 420-unit Oasis luxury high-rise towers sit mostly empty more than a year after opening. One building has a single resident.

Cannington says it was a shock to his self-esteem when he lost his six-figure marketing job. But the self-described optimist developed a routine: making phone calls and sending e-mails and resumes in the morning and doing housework and errands in the afternoon. He set up frequent lunches and meetings.

But despite about 15 interviews, he says, many employers seek candidates with advanced degrees, though he believes his years of work experience and local ties are more valuable.

For most of last fall, the Canningtons lived off Mike's four-month severance and Stacey's $60,000 annual salary. But after Stacey lost her job in November as business development director for two malls, the couple started chipping away at their $100,000 in savings and retirement accounts, agreeing not to touch a separate $150,000 retirement fund. Mike got a part-time job selling fuel additives in March, but lost it in June, while Stacey recently got a commission-only sales job at the chamber of commerce.

Now, the $100,000 is gone. Mike, who gets $275 a week in unemployment benefits, stopped paying the $3,500 mortgage on their yellow stucco ranch house in July. On a recent weekday morning, he wore a green T-shirt and black shorts as he sat in his living room, which looks out onto a screened-in pool.

"You think you're doing OK, and one day you go, 'Oh my God, we're out of money,' " he says.

Losses all around

The Canningtons set their thermostat to 79 degrees and keep ceiling fans perennially spinning. They recently put their three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house up for sale - though after spending about $200,000 on remodeling in 2007, they expect to lose at least $100,000. The annual family vacation is history, and the Canningtons had to tell their daughter, Sarah, she would not get her long-promised high-school graduation gift - a trip anywhere in the world.

Initially, Cannington limited his job search to Fort Myers. In January, he widened it to all of Florida. In July, the couple reluctantly resolved to go almost anywhere for a job. He's also become less choosy about work he'll do here.

"It'll be going to the Gap or Sports Authority and trying to find a $10-an-hour job, because we've all but exhausted our savings," he says. "It's very humbling. It's not where I envisioned I would be at this place in my life."

Cannington is almost as troubled by the gradual erosion of his standing in the community.

"You were a mover, you were a shaker, you were a person of significance, and the longer I'm unemployed, the less significant I am in many eyes," says Cannington, who served on the chamber of commerce's board for 15 years.

Fort Myers resident David Bogert, 43, who was laid off from his sales job in late 2006, worries more about his threadbare finances. After losing his $90,000-a-year job at Jandy Pool Products, the wiry Dallas native and former bull rider soon stopped using his clothes dryer and dishwasher to save electricity, and began taking cold showers.

He recently unloaded his 1,700-square-foot house in a gated golf course community for less than half the $375,000 he paid. Many possessions - including furniture, car parts and computer chips - were sold on eBay. Last year, after slashing his credit limit based on his falling credit score, his credit card company canceled his account when it learned he was unemployed.

He says he has exhausted his $20,000 or so in savings and ran out of jobless benefits in July.

Bogert now lives in a small, neat room at a friend's house. To hunt for jobs, he sits at the foot of his bed and surfs the Web from a computer on his dresser.

"It grinds on you," Bogert says, adding he runs 40 miles a week to relieve stress and recently launched his own painting business. "I'm living hand to mouth."

Unemployment also hurts relationships. Bogert, who no longer has money for going out, says his girlfriend of two years broke up with him in May, though they reunited two months later.

The stakes are higher for Boyd Champion, who lost his construction job three years ago and is married with two children. His wife, Roxanne, was laid off from her pool-cleaning job, and the couple lost their three-bedroom home in nearby Cape Coral to foreclosure. Their jobless benefits ran out two years ago.

They now rent a small, spare house with unpainted walls in Fort Myers. Putting food on the table is a daily struggle.

"You open the refrigerator, and there's nothing in there," says Champion, a tattooed, goateed 43-year-old. "We buy hamburger meat and make it last two days."

He makes a small sum doing odd jobs in the area, but the lack of a full-time job became draining after six months.

"You get depressed to where we didn't even want to budge," Champion said as his daughter Ashley, 13, curled up on a couch and texted on a cellphone. "It makes you feel like crap when you can't provide for the people you love."

Champion wants to become a firefighter but can't afford to pay several thousand dollars for training.

As they exhaust their savings and unemployment benefits, many of the chronically unemployed no longer can pay their mortgages. One in 88 homes in the Fort Myers area was in foreclosure in August, the ninth-highest rate in the USA, RealtyTrac says.

Local businesses feel the pain. The Prawnbroker restaurant group, which owns four area eateries, has seen revenue fall 30% since 2007. "At some point, you have to make choices: Do I go out and have dinner to celebrate my anniversary or make sure Susie can go to gymnastics?" says group Vice President Mark Blust.

Aid services overloaded

Sustained unemployment also is straining Fort Myers' social services. One recent morning, the state-operated career center was jammed, with all 13 computer terminals taken and five people waiting. Many clients have been jobless at least six months, Fort Myers Career and Service Center spokeswoman Barbara Hartman says.

A large number take spots for which they're overqualified, such as hotel clerk or cashier, leaving fewer jobs for those who normally fill those slots. Counselor Hellen Canicosa says her job now entails morale-boosting, as well as giving practical advice.

Ad hoc support groups have sprung up. Schirado started his about a year ago before losing his own job in November. On a recent evening, 13 people sat at round tables in a local church's pitched-roof parlor. Besides dispensing advice on résumés and interview attire, he offers emotional support. Mickie Chapeman, 58, unemployed since April, says she recently got a job, "but it didn't work out."

"That happens," Schirado tells her. "Some people and jobs don't match. Don't feel bad about it."

Community Cooperative Ministries, which provides food and other aid, now serves a growing set of middle-class residents who are unemployed for long periods and seek aid repeatedly, CEO Sarah Owen says.

Previously, "I'd pay your $350 utility bill, and then I'd be working to get you a job, and by the next utility bill, you'd pay it," Owen says. "There're just not enough resources available."

Some help may be on the way. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to extend jobless benefits - by 13 weeks in states with high unemployment - for the fourth time since the downturn began in December 2007. Without an extension, a total 1.4 million Americans will lose their benefits by the end of the year, the National Employment Law Project estimates.

Many of the long-term unemployed seek retraining with federal stimulus money. Enrollment at Edison State College's Fort Myers campus has risen 44% since 2006. Katz recommends volunteering to fill résumé gaps.

Yet there's no substitute for working again.

"I try to wake up every day and say, 'Today might be the day I get a job,' " Cannington says.

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