Florida's unemployment rate jumped to 12.2 percent in February, the highest since the state began tracking the data in 1970 and likely the highest since World War II.
The previous record of 11.9 percent was set in May 1975 in the aftermath of the '73-'74 recession when Florida's tourism industry was struggling through the OPEC oil crisis.
One hopeful sign that the state might be turning a corner: Between January and February, the state gained a net 26,300 jobs, the first time since November 2007 that it wasn't shedding jobs. Even the construction industry, which has shrunk almost in half during the recession, gained 1,000 jobs, bringing its total to 355,800 statewide.
Unemployment can rise even when jobs are being added partly because the data are drawn from two different surveys — a household employment survey for unemployment and a broader sampling from employers to get a jobs count.
It also reflects more people entering or re-entering the labor pool. As of February, Florida's labor pool was more than 9.25 million, up from just under 9.24 million in January.
"Unemployment is up, but so are payroll jobs," said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "This conflicting data is an indication that we're getting close to, if not at a turning point."
Other economists had more tempered optimism after Friday's unemployment update.
Florida needs at least four straight months of job gains before it can be confident the pattern has shifted, said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which tracks unemployment trends and distributes unemployment benefits.
Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, said Florida's unemployment picture could continue to worsen, despite the minor job growth.
"Certainly on a national level, we've seen the unemployment rate level off, but Florida keeps heading higher. That's a bit disturbing," he said. "The bottom line is we're a state that had one of the bigger housing bubbles, so (the unemployment situation) will be somewhat worse here."
Though no hard data are available, Brown said it's likely we're now at the highest jobless rate since World War II because the 1970s recession was the biggest post-war downturn the state has faced. Until now.
Florida's unemployment rate has consistently been running higher than the national average, which stood at 9.7 percent in February.
Florida's rate, which represents more than 1.1 million jobless Floridians actively seeking work, is up from a revised January rate of 12 percent and up a full 3 percentage points from a year ago.
Include discouraged job seekers who have given up looking and those working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job, and Florida's unemployment rate would top 20 percent, Rust said.
Tampa Bay's unemployment rate stood at 13.1 percent compared to a revised 13.2 percent in January. Hernando, Pasco, Citrus, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties all recorded minor improvements between January and February.
Over the past year, the bay area has lost 34,300 jobs, the third-biggest drop among Florida metro areas.
Economists point to several green shoots, indications that the economy may be starting to recover. Productivity is improving, retail sales and exports are up, inflation is low and mass layoffs have dropped significantly.
But with the mix of tight credit conditions, frugal consumers and a fragile housing market still battling a record level of foreclosures, a quick rebound appears unlikely.
In fact, a state panel of economists forecasts that unemployment will peak in the second half of this year at about 12.3 percent before starting a very slow retreat. It's not expected to drop down to a more comfortable level of 6 percent until 2018.
Data released Friday by other states underscores how much the labor market nationally is still struggling to recover.
Unemployment increased in 27 states in February and dropped in seven. Among large states, Florida has the third-largest unemployment rate, but the gap has narrowed. No. 1 Michigan saw its unemployment drop for the second straight month, falling to 14.1 percent, while No. 2 California remained unchanged at 12.5 percent.
Florida is one of 15 states with double-digit unemployment.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.