Take a deep breath.
After months of shedding jobs at a breakneck pace, Florida's economy took a break from its freefall in March with unemployment inching up just slightly to 9.7 percent from a revised 9.6 percent a month earlier.
It marks the smallest monthly increase in Florida's jobless rate in 15 months.
Few are predicting that Florida is poised for recovery or even bottoming out just yet. But along with the easing of credit and rising bank profits, the job numbers released Friday were a welcome sign of moderation in a recession highlighted by extreme losses, especially on the job front, with the state losing more than 400,000 jobs the past 12 months.
Consumers and businesses are still cautious, "but they've climbed out of the foxhole,'' says economist Scott Brown of Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. One anecdotal benchmark Brown uses is that it's tougher to get a table at a restaurant on the weekend than just a few months ago, a sign people are gradually starting to spend again.
"There is a palpable sense that the terrifying economic freefall we have been experiencing has slowed to a gradual descent, which isn't exactly good news, but it's an encouraging sign," added Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
Among those urging Floridians not to place too much hope on one month was Rebecca Rust, economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which assembles the unemployment figures. "We need four months (of data) to determine a trend … if the economy is improving," she said.
Florida continues to track well above the national average in shedding jobs. The national unemployment rate is currently at 8.5 percent, up from 8.1 percent in February.
In the Tampa Bay area, the unemployment rate in March rose to 10.4 percent, up from a revised rate of 10.3 percent a month ago. Hernando County continued to post the worst numbers in the region with 12.9 percent.
Flagler County remains the toughest county statewide to find a job, but its unemployment rate dropped in March to 14.3 percent from a revised February number of 14.4 percent. At 5.2 percent, Liberty County boasts the lowest rate.
Job cuts have been particularly brutal since the fall. As recently as October, Florida could boast an unemployment rate under 7 percent. A rate of 9.7 percent represents 893,000 jobless out of a statewide workforce of 9.2 million.
That rate matches a modern era record for unemployment in Florida set in the first three months of 1976, and it's expected to climb above 10 percent eventually.
Mark Zandi, founder and chief economist of Moody's Economy.com, predicts Florida's rate may reach as high as 11.5 percent over the coming year.
The slowdown in March is "certainly a positive sign," Zandi said, but "Florida's unemployment will certainly peak well over 10 percent. We've got that unfortunate benchmark ahead of us."
It could come very soon. Zandi called early unemployment insurance data for April "pretty ugly.''
Cynthia Lorenzo, interim director of the Agency for Workforce Innovation, said her office processed more than 78,000 unemployment claims last week, compared with 19,000 claims in the same week a year ago. In recent months, the office said its claims volume had been running 250 percent above year-ago levels.
In a twist, Zandi's predication of higher unemployment is pegged in part to economic recovery. Once the job market shows signs of life, that will drive some people who took themselves out of the market a long time ago to wade back in. Their re-entry will make competition tougher and drive up unemployment, he said.
Those Floridians now on the sidelines, along with those working part time who can't find a full-time job, are part of what's referred to as the underemployed. With the underemployed factored in, Florida's unemployment rate would likely double.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.