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Florida unemployment drops slightly, to 9.6 percent

Florida stopped shedding jobs in April, helping the state's unemployment rate ease from 9.8 percent to 9.6 percent.

Even the Tampa Bay area, which has lost 53,400 jobs the past year, saw unemployment dip from 10.5 percent in March to 10.1 percent in April.

Time to declare an end to our recessionary job fears? Don't count on it. Even when the economy starts to grow again, jobs probably won't follow for months.

"I don't think we could call this a turn in Florida's economy,'' said Wachovia economist and Florida prognosticator Mark Vitner.

Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, was equally somber.

"We'll get to double-digit unemployment before the end of the year. We'll break through 10 percent,'' Snaith said. "It's going to take a while for that ugly scar to fade.''

Nevertheless, unemployment numbers released Friday halted more than a year of steep job losses. Just a year earlier Florida's unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.

Florida was one of only six states that didn't lose jobs in April. California lost the most jobs, 63,700. Michigan's unemployment rate, at 12.9 percent, was the nation's highest. Oregon's was second worst at 12 percent.

The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, using seasonally adjusted figures, reported a net gain of 1,300 jobs in April.

Much of Florida's limited job growth came from employment agencies, nursing homes, gambling establishments and professional and business services.

Rebecca Rust, head of labor statistics for the state, called April's gain statistically insignificant. But after three years of flat or declining employment, she'll take what she can get.

"The fact that it stabilized … that's still a positive sign," Rust said.

The unemployment rate improved in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Hernando continued to post the worst rate at 12.2 percent, down from 12.9 percent in March. Hillsborough fared the best in the area with a rate of 9.5 percent. Pinellas posted 10 percent, Pasco 11.2 percent and Citrus 10.6 percent.

Elsewhere in the state, Flagler remains the toughest county to find a job, with an unemployment rate of 14.4 percent. Liberty County in North Florida had the lowest rate at 4.6 percent.

Florida continues to track above the national average in shedding jobs. The national unemployment rate is 8.9 percent, up from 8.5 percent in March.

Though it gets a lot of attention, the unemployment rate isn't always reliable. It's compiled from a household survey that asks Americans if they're looking for work. People who have stopped looking are no longer counted as unemployed.

Snaith said certain job sectors such as construction could be hitting bottom. More than 105,000 state construction jobs have disappeared in the past year. Other employers, car dealers for instance, could dump jobs the rest of the year.

"We had a very dramatic first few months of the year in terms of layoffs. This could be a bit of a breather," Snaith said.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the United States has lost a net total of 5.7 million jobs. The nationwide unemployment rate is the highest since the bad recession of the early 1980s. Florida's job losses in the past year are 380,300.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and some economists hope the pace of layoffs will moderate as the recession eases its grip and likely ends this year. But even if employers reduce firings, the nationwide unemployment rate is expected to hit double digits by year's end. Employers won't be in any mood to ramp up hiring until revenues and profits improve.

Nor is Florida out of the woods. Belying the falling unemployment rate, Florida company's announced 152 layoffs of more than 50 employees in April. In March, there were 102 mass layoffs.

Neither Snaith nor Vitner expects Florida's employment to improve until late 2010. A state economic forecasting board assumes Florida unemployment will peak at 10.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

And high unemployment in places like Michigan and Ohio is also bad news for the Tampa Bay area, reliant as it is on home sales from former residents of the upper Midwest.

"I'm sure there are a lot of folks in Pasco County who would want to sell those Michigan people a house," Vitner said.

. FAST FACTS

Area jobless rates

CountyApr.Mar.
Citrus10.611.4
Hernando12.212.9
Hillsborough9.59.9
Pasco11.211.6
Pinellas1010.3
Tampa Bay10.110.5
State9.69.8

Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation

Florida unemployment drops slightly, to 9.6 percent 05/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 10:02pm]
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