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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

State says good luck to 1300

from the St. Petersburg Times

by Steve Bousquet, Stephanie Wang, Jamal Thalji and Katie Sanders

Millions of Floridians head back to work today after a three-day Fourth of July weekend.

But Toni Gugliotta won't be among them.

She'll be applying for $275 a week in unemployment benefits instead.

The Pinellas County woman is among 1,300 state employees put out of work by the new budget approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on May 26.

Scott kept his promise to reduce the size of the state government bureaucracy. But he did so at the expense of real people with mortgages, health care bills, college tuition payments and credit card payments.

Many of them earned less than $30,000 a year after years of state employment.

To them, the Scott mantra "Let's get to work" rings hollow. They now join the hordes of Floridians looking for work in a state with an unemployment rate that, while declining, remains in double digits at 10.6 percent.

The state agencies that took the biggest hits are the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families, which together account for most of the layoffs.

"It's like 12 years going down the drain," Gugliotta said.

• • •

Gugliotta, 50, of Dunedin, earned nearly $29,000 a year as one of 18 full-time community service officers under the Florida Highway Patrol. CSOs, as they were known, directed traffic and handled fender-bender accidents, freeing up Florida Highway Patrol troopers for more serious calls.

Most CSOs were in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, where the program was created.

The program was a perennial target of budget cuts but always managed to survive — until this year. After 14 years, it's gone.

"I was proud to wear the uniform," Gugliotta said. "I did not walk out of my house with a stain or a crease."

For the first time in 15 years, she'll be without a paycheck this week. She's single and has no other income and plans to file for unemployment benefits, but worries knowing the $275 a week won't cover her $560 monthly health insurance premiums and other bills.

"I have a mortgage. I have bills. I have to pay for my knee surgery," Gugliotta said.

She also worries about motorists who she says will now have to wait longer for help.

"Wait until hurricane season. Wait until schools open," she said. "The snowbirds are going to come down soon. Here, when they need us the most, they're eliminating the program."

Firing the CSOs saves $900,000. That's a pittance, Gugliotta says, compared with the waste that went into the $48 million courthouse in Tallahassee known as the Taj Mahal.

"Why can't they sell two pictures from the Taj Mahal wall and fund us for another year?" Gugliotta asked.

• • •

Before the state juvenile detention center in East Hillsborough closed for good on June 30, its employees lingered at the place they used to call "work."

Even those on leave before starting new jobs came by to help pack up and reminisce. They laughed at their decision to keep the lights off during the day, and said they were trying to save the state money.

For three years, East Hillsborough was on the legislative chopping block. Its luck finally ran out in 2011.

Night supervisor Mike Gentry, 47, of Seffner, walked away from the offer of another state job that would have cut his pay and wiped out 200 hours of vacation time.

After more than five years on the job, Gentry was paid $29,743 a year.

He's applying for work elsewhere and considering possible jobs in the sheriff's offices in Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

He likes the challenge of steering troubled kids away from a life of misery. He's the kind of guy who notices when teens start to lose themselves in their thoughts as they rock back and forth in their seats, elbows cradled.

Gentry figured the center would have closed eventually, no matter who was governor. But he wished Scott showed a little more compassion for the plight of jettisoned state workers.

"He doesn't show too much emotion or empathy to people being laid off," Gentry said.

• • •

Columbus Wilson bought a house in Tallahassee four years ago. Now he worries he won't be able to make the mortgage payments.

After 19 years, Wilson finds himself unemployed, fired from his job as a data clerk at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

His job, Fiscal Assistant II, paid $24,670 a year — after 19 years.

A 58-year-old disabled Army veteran, Wilson wonders why that wasn't considered.

"What upsets me is, I'm a veteran," Wilson said. "I thought I was supposed to have a veteran's preference."

He has gone on a couple of job interviews, but so far, nothing.

"Unemployment," Wilson said. "I was hoping I would get a job so I won't have to do that. I don't want to go on unemployment. It's not going to be enough. No way."

Wilson glances around his office at the Kirkman Building in Tallahassee and realizes he has been there longer than anybody else. So much for seniority.

But his last job evaluation was a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. The state decided he was expendable.

"The department assessed each employee's knowledge, skill set and their abilities in deciding who would be best qualified to remain," said agency spokeswoman Ann Howard.

• • •

Ida Shuler thought she and her fellow clerks in the Department of Corrections would be spared as they moved to new downtown Tallahassee offices in early June.

After all, her boss gave her a shaded parking space and her own cubicle.

"I just knew we missed the radar," Shuler said.

It wouldn't last. Shuler, a 23-year-old senior at Florida A&M, and most of her fellow student-workers lost their part-time jobs.

They earned money for tuition, books, rent and not much else. Their entry-level, $8.50-an-hour jobs were easy targets for prison officials trying to trim costs.

Shuler's job was prepping files of released inmates for entry into a state database. Now she'll look for office and day care work while taking summer classes for her degree in elementary education.

"I've done retail and fast food and I really don't want to go back there," Shuler said.

She plans to graduate in the spring and may pursue graduate school at the University of South Florida so she can become a principal.

As she watched other laid off workers cry at their desks, Shuler realized she's better off than some of them.

"Some have families they are taking care of off what we were making," she said. "This is their life."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

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