MIAMI -- Commuting bothers Daniel Cross. But working doesn't.
So he drives 40 miles each morning from Boca Raton to an electronics plant in Sunrise, where he has worked since losing a job much closer to home two years ago.
"I can't complain about it," said Cross, an electronics engineer. "I'm just lucky to be employed."
With unemployment stuck above 9 percent, commuting has emerged as both a chore and a privilege. Workers unable to find job within a reasonable distance from their front doors are increasingly willing to travel for a paycheck, hiring managers said.
But the flip side is that the tough economy, combined with chronic unemployment, have made travel costs an even bigger burden for those forced into long commutes. And for those stuck working far from home, a tight hiring market dims hopes for finding relief with a nearby employer.
Though on their way down again, fuel prices -- nationwide, at about $3.57 per gallon of regular gas -- have increased about 29 percent compared to a year ago, according to AAA. Those on the fringes of the job market are feeling the pinch the most.
At Broward County's unemployment agency, Workforce One, the caseload for training the unemployed grew 29 percent since July, but vouchers for free bus fare and gas cards to cover job-training travel costs for new and existing clients are up 56 percent. "If it's going to cost you an extra $15 a week to fill up your tank, where is that $15 going to come from?" said Mason Jackson, president of Workforce One. "For some folks, an extra $15 a week is $60 a month that they just don't have."
Ann Machado, who runs a staffing and placement firm based in Kendall, said commuting has all but vanished as a worry for would-be hires. "People are so desperate to work that they're really not complaining about the cost of transportation," said Machado, president of Creative Staffing.
Not so with employers, who worry about desperate applicants ignoring the strain a long commute can bring. Machado recounted the trouble she had in placing a qualified sales manager in a position in Doral. The problem: The candidate lives in Boca.
"They're worried about the commute," Machado said. The candidate, on the other hand, is eager to make the drive in exchange for a secure paycheck.
Although gas prices initially followed the global economy down, the trends haven't favored put-upon commuters. As jobs became far scarcer, fuel prices soared -- up from January 2006's average cost of $2.40 a gallon.
With traffic a chronic woe in good times and bad, commuting is hardly a new hardship for South Florida workers -- no matter the pay grade. George Burgess, Miami-Dade's former county manager, last week started a new job as chief operating officer of the Becker and Poliakoff law firm in Fort Lauderdale. The Pinecrest resident plans to drive about 40 minutes each morning for his new position.
"It's not that bad," Burgess said. "The longest piece, believe it or not, is probably going to be the 10 or 11 miles between my house and downtown" Miami.
Frank Fernandez, a senior vice president at U.S. Century Bank, said he has been impressed by the tenacity of commuters at the various branches he supervises.
"They're living in Kendall and working downtown, waiting for something to open up in Kendall," he said. "I'm surprised at how long they're willing to stay. You can't deny that the economy is a factor."
In better times, banks would pay what he called "combat pay" -- a stipend to compensate for long commutes to remote branches, such as in Key Biscayne. But perks like those are distant memories.
Cross is feeling the financial pinch that comes with his Boca-to-Sunrise commute. The job he lost in 2009 was just 10 minutes from his house and came with a 20 percent higher paycheck. It took him four months to find his new one at Imation Electronic Products, which makes iPhone accessories and other gadgets.
The $60 he spends on gas most weeks amounts to a second pay cut for the new job.
"It's about $3,000 off the bottom line," he said. "It's a chunk."
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.
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