Hernando County's unemployment jumped to 10.9 percent in December, setting an 18-year high and ranking it No. 2 in the state, according to figures released Friday by Florida's work force agency.
The staggering rate — a 0.6 percentage point increase from November's adjusted 10.3 percent — indicates that the downward spiral that undermined the county's economy in 2008 continues to cause havoc.
"We haven't even hit the toughest times yet, and that certainly is worrisome," said Mike McHugh, the county's economic development director. "We are definitely in uncharted territory.''
And it suggests the long-charted ills of the building industry are deepening and infecting other sectors of the economy.
"The job losses do not appear to be in a particular segment but across the depth and breadth of all our businesses, from medical to retail to manufacturing and government,'' McHugh said. "It's really affecting virtually every employment category.''
Hernando's plight is trumped only by Flagler County's 11.7 percent unemployment and matches Hamilton County's rate, Agency for Workforce Innovation data show.
It's the highest rate since at least 1990, the earliest year available in state data. The previous benchmark stood at 10.5 percent in January 1992.
In more concrete terms, it means that nearly 7,000 Hernando residents are looking for jobs.
Sherry Seems, 37, is one of them. The single mother of two was an office assistant at a Brooksville doctor's office until she was laid off shortly after Christmas.
She spent Friday afternoon at Career Central searching for a job. Pickings were slim.
"It really sucks," she said. "I've never had a problem finding work until now. That tells me things must be really bad."
For now, Seems is living with her father. She is eager to regain her independence.
"I'll do whatever I can do," she said.
Career Central's Ken Russ hears stories like that often. The job counseling organization helped more than 11,000 job seekers in Pasco and Hernando counties in December. And it will only continue. He doesn't expect the local job market to pick up until at least mid 2009.
"It's not moving much right now, and there's little on the immediate horizon to indicate an immediate turnaround," Russ said.
That likelihood only makes the situation worse, said Jean Rags, the county's director of health and human services. Her office experienced a 7 percent increase in requests for assistance related to unemployment from October to December of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.
"We continue to see a number of people coming in who are casualties of the unemployment rate,'' she said. "Our biggest challenge is that many of these people are barely getting by."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.