South Carolina looked like a pretty good choice to computer network engineer Chad Birnbaum. Armed with a degree from Michigan State University and solid industry credentials, he landed a job in the area that paid $60,000 and offered full benefits.
At 25, life was good.
The S.C. Employment Security Commission has a new system for those placing weekly calls into the agency to keep their unemployment claims current.Starting Dec. 7, claimants whose Social Security numbers end in even numbers — a 0, 2, 4, 6 or 8 — should call the agency on Sundays. Those with odd-numbered SSNs should call on Mondays.The goal is to prevent the agency's telephone lines from jamming, which has happened recently after a sharp increase in call volume.
Then, as the financial meltdown began to wind its way through the local economy, Birnbaum was laid off by Welded Tube Berkeley.
Off the job
The unemployment rate jumped sharply in the state's four major job centers in October. Charleston's was the lowest for the month.Metro Oct. Sept. Oct. 08 08 07Charleston 6.5% 6.0% 4.8%Columbia 6.9% 6.4% 5.3%Florence 8.7% 8.0% 6.4%Greenville 6.9% 6.2% 5.4%
"Things are getting ugly. I'm in a world of hurt," he said this week after filling out forms for jobless benefits at the Employment Security Commission office on Lockwood Boulevard.
Birnbaum is among the mounting number of workers who are seeking unemployment checks to tide them over until new work comes along. On Friday, the state commission said South Carolina's jobless rate jumped sharply in October to 8 percent, the highest point in nearly 25 years.
"This increase appears to be consistent with the overall worsening of the nation's economy as a result of the turmoil in the housing and financial markets," said Ted Halley, the commission's executive director.
The number of unemployed workers rose by 16,549 to 173,467. The number of jobs showed little change over the month, registering a modest increase of 4,100. For the Charleston region, the rate jumped to 6.5 percent in October — up sharply from 6 percent in September and from 4.8 percent in October 2007.
While the state's retail and construction sectors combined to add an unexpected 3,100 positions, "these gains are likely temporary as these industries are expected to mirror national trends over the next few months and fall below normal seasonal levels," the employment commission said.
The state's jobless rate was 7.3 percent in September.
The October rate was the highest for South Carolina since December 1983 and the fourth-highest in the nation. The Palmetto State ranked behind just Michigan (9.3 percent), Rhode Island (9.3 percent) and California (8.2 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Given that the national economy isn't expected to recover soon, South Carolina's rate could easily climb higher in future months, predicted Don Schunk, research economist at Coastal Carolina University.
"Here we are in the earlier stages of a recession and unemployment is already at a 25-year high in South Carolina," he said, adding that even holiday retail hiring is weak this year.
A global recession would likely hurt jobs within the state that are tied to exports, Schunk said.
"Then look at what all that means for tax revenue, and we have state and local governments that will likely be forced to lay off workers," he said.
Experts said declines on Wall Street also were having an impact as some retirees seek to return to work after their nest eggs lost value, making the job market that much tighter, College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said.
"People who could afford not to work are now back in the labor force," Hefner said.
South Carolina financier and philanthropist Darla Moore of the Palmetto Institute said the 25-year unemployment rate high didn't surprise her.
"I think it will continue through 2009," Moore said Friday during an agriculture conference in Charleston. "As long as the financial crisis is with us, I think we're in for some extremely difficult few years."
Moore said South Carolina would likely bear the brunt of the national slowdown more than other states because of its reliance on manufacturing and the low wages that many residents earn from unskilled jobs.
At the state's employment center in downtown Charleston, a bank of computers where people applied for jobless benefits was full Thursday.
Delivery truck driver Travis Coaxum, 25, a Wando High School graduate, said he was let go three months ago when he refused to take a pay cut from a tire company. He is now homeless and has lost his car, a 1999 Buick. He now lives with a relative for the time being while his two children, ages 4 and 6, live with their mother.
"By the skin of our teeth we take care of the kids. It's depressing," he said.
Coaxum said he works odd jobs as they come available at a temporary employment agency, but even that didn't pan out for him this week.
"It's rough. Very rough. The economy is unbelievable," he said. "I don't understand why it's so hard to find a job. I don't have a (criminal) record. Don't have any problems and I'm still catching the devil. It's one of those kind of deals where you just try to stay motivated and keep going. It's not easy at all," he said.
John Boyd, 34, recently moved to the area from Florida to work for a landscaping company but was let go last week.
"There's not much call for that now with the economy the way it is," Boyd said of landscaping services. "It's really bad. This was my last option. I didn't want to come here and file for unemployment."
The Contreras family will be tightening its belt because Rosaura Contreras learned this week that her job as a "copper picker" at Charleston Mill Service was gone. She held a letter that informed her that her temporary layoff was now permanent.
"Sad," she said.
Daughter Carla said her mother's job loss means cutting back on movies and trips to the skating rink.
"I can't get a lot of things any more," she said.
Regina Seabrook, 24, a single mother, said she lost her job as a waitress three weeks ago. She doesn't want to go back to working tables, though she hopes to find another job in customer service.
"Not a lot of people coming out. Not tipping like they usually do," Seabrook said.
Katy Stech, Allison Bird and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Prentiss Findlay at email@example.com or 937-5711.