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Florida unemployment hits 9.4%, worst since 1976

Florida's unemployment skyrocketed to 9.4 percent in February, with the number of jobless in the Tampa Bay area breaking into the double-digits at 10.2 percent.

That puts Florida's unemployment at its highest rate in nearly 33 years. By comparison, the country's unemployment rate in February had reached 8.1 percent, a 25-year high.

Some economists have projected the national rate will climb toward 10 percent with hard-hit states like Florida and California continuing to outpace the rest of the country.

"There's no real definition of a depression, but some would say whenever you have double-digit unemployment for an extended period of time, it qualifies," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "So we're getting closer to that in Florida."

Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the unemployment program, dismissed talk of depression. She said the term shouldn't be used for anything short of comparison on a national level.

Nevertheless, Rust deemed the current recession the worst since 1974-75 and said that Florida's economy is expected to worsen throughout the year.

In past recessions, unemployment has been a lagging indicator, continuing to rise even after the economy started rebounding. The latest state analysis used for budgeting purposes predicted Florida's unemployment would peak at 10.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

Florida's jump in February, which represents 874,000 jobless out of a labor force of 9.25 million, is up significantly from January's revised rate of 8.8 percent. A year ago, Florida's unemployment was 4.3 percent.

Not included in the breakdown are discouraged jobless who are no longer actively seeking work.

Consistent with previous months, construction continued to lead in job losses, shedding another 20,000 jobs statewide between January and February. It's down almost 115,000 jobs, or 21 percent, from a year ago. The job count in the state's most resilient industry, health care, slipped slightly month-to-month but is still up 2 percent from a year ago.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hernando County continued to suffer the most with an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent, second in the state only to Flagler County's 14.2 percent.

Among other regional counties: Pinellas' unemployment rate was 10 percent; Hillsborough's was 9.7 percent; Pasco's was 11.3 percent and Citrus' was 11.6 percent.

All together, the bay area has shed more than 51,000 jobs over the year, third-highest among Florida metro areas.

Regional and county estimates are not seasonally adjusted.

The AWI has available nearly $1.4 billion in recent federal stimulus funds to help pay unemployment claims. Last week, the agency began mailing and electronically distributing an additional $25 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits to those who qualify.

However, members of the state Legislature are balking at accepting another potential $1.1 billion in federal aid geared toward Floridians whose unemployment benefits are running out.

Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader, is among those concerned that tapping the additional federal money comes with strings that would cost Florida employers millions of dollars.

Florida unemployment hits 9.4%, worst since 1976 03/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 5:37pm]

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