President Bush picked an opportune time to sign legislation Friday extending unemployment benefits 20 extra weeks for states where unemployment topped 6 percent.
Florida, as underscored by numbers released Friday, more than qualifies. The state's unemployment rate in October jumped to a 15-year high of 7 percent, up from 6.6 percent a month earlier and outpacing the national rate of 6.5 percent.
That translates to 655,000 jobless Floridians out of a labor force just shy of 9.4-million.
"It really looks like the wheels have fallen off the economy the last couple of months,'' said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
"It's almost a panic at this time. … It's hard to say where the bottom is going to be. At this point, I'm just waiting for things to stop falling.''
Over the past year, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area alone has shed 22,700 jobs, driving its unemployment rate up to 7.4 percent in October, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation reported. It was second only to Miami-Fort Lauderdale among metro areas statewide losing the most jobs.
A year ago, bay area unemployment stood at 4.5 percent.
Ground zero in the region is Hernando County, where unemployment continued its upward spiral, from 9.3 percent in September to 9.7 percent in October.
Like other counties, Hernando's plight is rooted in the construction industry, which accounts for 40 percent of the 156,200 jobs lost statewide this past year. But, also like other counties, there's been a ripple effect.
David Hamilton, a job counselor with Career Central in Spring Hill, worries that more businesses with no direct connection to the housing industry, such as trucking, auto mechanic and custodial companies, will be laying off employees.
"Even people with much needed skills are having trouble finding good-paying jobs," he said "That wasn't the way it was eight to 10 months ago. It means that the downturn in our county is spreading beyond the housing industry."
Several recent economic forecasts see unemployment nationally rising to between 8 and 9 percent, perhaps higher in Florida, with the downturn persisting into late 2009 or early 2010.
Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wachovia Securities who tracks Florida, also deems the current recession "one of the most broadly based downturns I can remember.''
For perspective, though, he doesn't see unemployment rising nationally to nearly 11 percent as it did in the early 1980s.
Fellow economist Brown decried some popular comparisons lately to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, he noted, unemployment surpassed 25 percent while politicians made "all the wrong policy moves'': raising taxes, raising interest rates and raising trade barriers.
Based on Florida alone, the current climate is probably the worst since 1973-1975, Vitner said, adding that recovery "is certainly going to be longer and more painful than in the early 1970s.''
One reason: changing workplace demographics. The percentage of women in the workplace was relatively low through the '70s, and even in the peak unemployment of the early 1980s, women made up only 13 percent of the work force. That has changed dramatically with the surge in dual-income households.
"In the last decade, not only did you put your spouse to work but also put your house to work'' by leveraging rising home equity, Vitner said. "Now, one, two, maybe all three of those have been laid off.''
Before Florida can recover, he said, it needs the housing markets in the Northeast and Midwest to rebound so the southern flow of retirees and job seekers to Florida will resume.
Times staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.