Florida's economy is expected to start growing again this quarter, "technically" pulling out of the recession. Sales tax revenues are growing again, slightly. Even the state's population has rebounded from losing residents a year ago.
But when it comes to its bleak job market, Florida is still scraping to find a bottom — let alone begin recovery.
Florida's unemployment rate reached 11.9 percent in January, tying a record high set in the state nearly 35 years ago, a report released Wednesday showed. Numbers for the Tampa Bay area were even more sobering, with unemployment at 13.1 percent, surging from 12.4 percent a month earlier.
A group of state economists recently predicted unemployment in Florida would top out at 12.3 percent by this fall before a slow crawl back toward the single digits.
"Unfortunately, we caught the brunt of this recession," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith. "I think we're in the last phases of the labor market's worsening."
The jobless rate, up from a revised 11.7 percent in December, translates to 1.1 million unemployed Floridians. The continued rise was fueled by a loss of 6,100 jobs during the month and 303,200 jobs over the past year.
Last year, the state was shedding jobs in the tens of thousands every month. The slower pace is encouraging, said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which produces the unemployment report.
"At least over the month we're getting closer to perhaps seeing positive job growth," Rust said.
State leaders have targeted job creation as a top priority this year, a point underscored by Gov. Charlie Crist during a visit to Tampa on Wednesday.
"It's all about jobs, jobs, jobs," said Crist, who appeared at the Tampa Bay Partnership offices to sign a bill that postpones a huge hike in unemployment taxes levied on Florida businesses.
The tax increase was automatically triggered because the state had depleted a trust fund used to pay unemployment benefits. Since last summer, the state has borrowed more than $1.2 billion from the federal government to keep the trust fund afloat. By limiting the tax increase, Florida will have to borrow an additional $4.3 billion. But Crist considers that a preferable scenario, saying the bill will save 1,500 jobs.
The bill also extended unemployment benefits for some who have exhausted all state and federally funded benefits. As many as 20,000 Floridians may be eligible for up to eight additional weeks.
Earlier Wednesday, Crist also disclosed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved releasing $61 million in federal stimulus funds for Florida's "Back to Work" program. Distribution of the rest of an estimated $200 million will follow, he said.
The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that Florida had lined up 900 projects that could result in nearly 10,600 short-term jobs but was held up waiting for federal approval. Under the Back to Work program, stimulus funds would pay for up to 95 percent of salary and training costs for new hires if employers agree to keep those jobs until at least September.
Some of the most stunning statistics out Wednesday were on the local level, with the Tampa Bay area posting the highest rate among major metropolitan areas.
Hernando County continued to suffer most, with a jobless rate of 15.7 percent, second in the state only to Flagler County at 17.1 percent. Elsewhere: Hillsborough's unemployment rate jumped to 12.7 percent; Pinellas, to 12.7 percent; Pasco, to 14.3 percent; and Citrus, to 14.6 percent.
One-month changes in local statistics can be deceptive, however.
Unlike state figures, county and metro rates are not seasonally adjusted. As a result, there tends to be a spike in January's unemployment report because of fewer retail jobs available after the holiday season.
The last time state unemployment was at 11.9 percent was May 1975, the highest point since the state started tracking such data in 1970. Comparable figures for national jobless rates during the Depression era are not available but were believed to be about 25 percent.
Florida's unemployment rate remains substantially higher than the national average, which was 9.7 percent in February and appears to be near a peak.
"On the national level we may have peaked, but (in Florida) I think it's hard to get a precise estimate on where it might stop," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
One reason for heightened concern is that a large number of Floridians are in the "underemployed" category, working part-time jobs when they need full-time pay. Florida's underemployment rate for 2009 was 18.4 percent. Add part-time workers seeking full-time jobs and discouraged jobless who have given up looking, and it would boost Florida's current unemployment rate by 8 percentage points to 19.9 percent, Rust said.
Rust said Florida may start adding jobs in the second quarter, but the state isn't expected to hit peak unemployment until the third quarter. Typically, once hiring starts to pick up, discouraged workers resume their job hunt, inflating unemployment figures.
Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com.