Despite signs the recession is easing, Florida's unemployment rate made an unexpectedly large jump last month, fueling predictions the state could break modern-era jobless records set in 1975.
On Friday, Florida officials reported the state's unemployment rate catapulted to 10.6 percent in June, the highest in 34 years, with the Tampa Bay area among the leaders in job losses.
The Florida Economic Estimating Conference, consisting of various state economists and financial staff, met Friday to update an already-out-of-date prediction from March that unemployment would top out at 10.2 percent in early 2010. No consensus had been reached by late Friday, but some economists say it's increasingly likely state unemployment could top 12 percent.
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, said it's possible unemployment will surpass Florida's 11.9 percent peak during the 1975 recession, "but we're going to hope stimulus funds help pull us out."
Prior to the '70s, analysts would have to stretch to the Great Depression for higher levels of joblessness. But the methodology for estimating unemployment was different then, making direct comparisons difficult.
The state's jobless figure for June, up from a revised 10.3 percent a month earlier, represents 970,000 out-of-work Floridians in a statewide workforce of 9.19 million.
In the Tampa Bay region, unemployment jumped a half percentage point, from an adjusted 10.6 percent in May to 11.1 percent. Hernando County, where unemployment reached 13.1 percent, continued to be the hardest hit in the region.
Michael McHugh, business development director for Hernando County, said Hernando's heavy dependence on the construction industry made it one of the first to feel the recession's bite. And a summertime drop-off in tourism hurts employment prospects even more.
"It's very hard to look at these numbers month to month,'' McHugh said.
Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness, was somewhat surprised by the latest numbers — not that unemployment continues to drift up, but that the jump was so sizable.
"If you're in search of green shoots in the economy, the labor market is not the place to look," Snaith said. "That earth has been salted by this recession."
Over the past year, the bay area has shed 55,400 jobs, second among Florida metro areas only to Miami-Fort Lauderdale's drop of 96,400 jobs. All told, there are about 147,000 bay area residents counted as unemployed.
Overall, Florida has been losing jobs at a quicker pace than the national average. The national unemployment rate was 9.5 percent for June.
Friday's news was simultaneous with national reports raising hopes that the recession may be in its final throes: an earnings boost at some megabanks and an unexpected jump in housing construction in June to the highest level in seven months.
Rust cited several economic pluses in Florida: housing starts and housing sales are both up month over month and foreclosures are down; tax revenues came in slightly higher than expected; and the state's employflorida.com job site posted 300,000 openings in the month of June.
But often in recessions, unemployment continues to rise or remains high even after the economy starts improving. Nationally, the unemployment rate is widely expected to top 10 percent early next year.
Florida's unemployment rate could rise another few percentage points before we're through, economist Scott Brown with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg said Friday.
"It's anybody's guess if it's going to top out at 12 or 13 percent. It's hard to put a fine point on it," Brown added.
"This may not be even a jobless recovery. This could be a job-loss recovery, like we saw after the 2001 recession where we kept losing jobs even after the economy recovered."
Adding to the job market frustration is the rising tide of long-term jobless. As part of the federal stimulus package, states are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to extend coverage for the unemployed who have exhausted regular insurance benefits while still unable to find work.
But a report Friday from the National Employment Law Project argues that aid isn't enough. Barring a dramatic turnaround in hiring, the group estimates that 540,000 Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits by the end of September, and 1.5 million, including more than 130,000 Floridians, will run out of coverage by year's end.
"It is clear we are coming up on a tidal wave of need for more extensions and help from the federal government," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of group, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that tracks unemployment data.
The housing bust paved the way into the recession three years ago, but it's since morphed into a widespread downturn.
One of the few exceptions in Florida, the health care and social assistance sector, is up a meager 1 percent in jobs year over year. One subset of that category sticks out: there are 6,100 more jobs in nursing care facilities than a year ago, a 6.5 percent increase.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.