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Florida unemployment jumps to 11.2 percent

A couple of days before Halloween, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith came out with a "gore-cast" forecast that Florida's unemployment would peak next year around 11.2 percent.

On Friday, after learning the state's jobless rate hit that number already, Snaith was back to the drawing board.

"I think now we're talking 11.7, 11.8 percent for the peak. Is 12 percent out of the range of possibility? No, it isn't."

There's been a growing consensus that the country's unemployment rate will peak around 10.5 percent by mid 2010 and start gradually receding. But getting a grip on how high Florida's unemployment might rise has been a frustrating exercise.

Florida's jobless rate of 11.2 percent for October represents 1.13 million unemployed out of a statewide work force just under 9.2 million. It's up slightly from an upwardly adjusted 11.1 percent in September.

Florida has shed 339,600 jobs over the year, the single biggest chunk coming in the trade, transportation and utilities sector. Among Florida's major industries, health care is the only sector gaining jobs. About 14,400 jobs have been created over the year in health care and social assistance, primarily in nursing and residential care facilities.

"No one has really expected to have the downturn last this long and be as severe as it currently is," said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency of Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment data and benefits. "It has surprised a lot of forecasters."

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Florida Economic Estimating Conference predicted the state's unemployment would top out at 11.4 percent next year, up from its July prediction of 11 percent. In a conference call with reporters Friday, Rust was hesitant to say that new number may be outdated already.

"It is our official number, so we will be confident and hope we don't surpass that peak," she said, "but we can only hope."

Her hope is rooted in several positive signs:

• The national economy is strengthening, with exports rising, the gross domestic product back in the positive, a continued drop in new unemployment claims and inflation remaining low.

• Earlier this year, more than 700,000 a month were losing their jobs nationwide; now the ranks of the unemployed are rising at a pace under 400,000 a month.

• The number of mass layoffs in Florida dropped from a peak 26 notices in March to 11 in October.

For many of the positives, a potentially damaging negative lurks.

Despite percolating home sales, the share of homeowners delinquent on their mortgage or in foreclosure hit a record during the third quarter. Despite fewer layoffs, the number of long-term unemployed has reached record levels.

Another factor prolonging recovery is that many companies opted to reduce worker hours instead of laying them off. Once business improves, the first step will be putting those part-timers on the payroll full-time, which delays putting the jobless back to work.

Florida was the national leader in job creation before the recession; now its joblessness runs a full percentage point higher than the national rate. It is the highest since June 1975, when it was also 11.2 percent. The last time the rate was higher was May 1975, when it reached 11.9 percent.

In the Tampa Bay area, unemployment stood at 11.7 percent, down slightly from an upwardly adjusted 11.8 percent a month earlier. The hardest-hit county in the region continued to be Hernando. With an unemployment rate of 13.8 percent, Hernando has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in Florida.

Add in discouraged jobless no longer actively looking for work and part-timers seeking more hours, and Florida's unofficial unemployment rate would be closer to 18.4 percent.

"What the rate is officially really understates the problem," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "We've got a long way to go in creating all these jobs we lost."

How long? Snaith doesn't see unemployment falling below double digits again until 2012. Though long-term projections are fuzzy, Rust said it may be 2019 before Florida gets down to a more reasonable 6 percent unemployment level.

It's a troubling scenario for newcomers to the unemployment rolls like James Henry, who was recently laid off from Bright House Networks after 20 years.

Bright House spokesman Joe Durkin said Henry was among 17 part-timers working in debt collection who were laid off because the company decided to outsource all collections. He said the workers were offered opportunities to apply for other positions and a number were hired for other full-time jobs.

Henry, 38, who moved from full time to part time two years ago, was stunned to learn his health benefits were being discontinued at the end of the month. Moreover, because he had shifted to part time, he wasn't entitled to any severance for years of service. Just two weeks' pay and a quick exit.

"After 20 years, I had 20 minutes to get out of the building," he said. "A state trooper escorted us out."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.

County-by-county unemployment rates

CountyOct. 2009Sept. 2009Oct. 2008
Citrus12 percent12.2 percent8.8 percent
Hernando13.8 percent13.9 percent9.7 percent
Hillsborough11.6 percent11.6 percent7.1 percent
Pasco12.5 percent12.7 percent8.4 percent
Pinellas11.2 percent11.3 percent7.3 percent
Flagler

(highest)
16.1 percent16.2 percent10.5 percent
Liberty (lowest)5.4 percent5.3 percent4.6 percent
Tampa

Bay area*
11.7 percent11.8 percent7.5 percent
Florida11.2 percent11.1 percent6.9 percent
Nation10.2 percent9.8 percent6.6 percent

* Combines Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Note: County and Tampa Bay area numbers are not seasonally adjusted. Florida and U.S. numbers are seasonally adjusted. Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Florida unemployment jumps to 11.2 percent 11/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 11:40pm]
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