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Florida unemployment claims explode amid coronavirus layoffs

New claims last week shatter records: 74,021 in Florida; 3.3 million in the U.S. And many Floridians say the state’s website won’t take their claim.

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The number of Floridians who applied for unemployment benefits exploded last week, driven by efforts to quell the coronavirus pandemic that shut down businesses and caused mass layoffs.

A total of 74,021 people signed up, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday, smashing the old record of 40,403 set in 2009 during the Great Recession. The total was an astronomical jump from the 6,256 claims filed a week earlier.

Related: Suddenly out of a job due to coronavirus? Here's what to do.

Across the country, nearly 3.3 million workers applied for unemployment benefits, blowing away the previous record set in 1982 of nearly 700,000.

The number of jobless claims is a key indicator of the health of Florida’s $1.1 trillion economy.

Related: The coronavirus recession is here. It could be worse in Florida than the rest of the nation.

It’s also an omen of how much more trouble could be on the way, said Jeff Tucker, an economist with the real estate and data company Zillow.

“There’s the initial shock of potentially millions of people having been laid off, especially in the restaurant, hotel and travel industry,” Tucker said. “Then the question is how far outward will the effects ripple into the economy because people have trouble paying the bills — car payments, rent, a mortgage — because they’re not getting their salary anymore.”

In a March 19-24 survey of more than 11,500 adults nationwide, 33 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center that they or someone in their household had lost their job or suffered a pay cut or reduction in work hours because of the coronavirus.

The job losses hit Hispanics, younger people and lower-income people especially hard, the survey found.

Related: COVID-19 empties Tampa Bay's hotels. What happens to their 150,000 employees?

Next week’s number of new claims could be even bigger. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday 21,000 Floridians filed claims just on Monday. And an unknown number of others tried to file a claim, but were thwarted by a state website that kicked them out of the process or locked them out of accounts.

The agency in charge of Florida’s unemployment benefits, the state Department of Economic Opportunity, says it’s been swamped by an eight-fold increase in calls — from 28,000 to 224,000 from one week to the next — and is struggling to add staff and technology to keep up with the surge.

Panama City bartender Kristina Page said she was laid off from her job for 30 days because of the business closures, and her husband, a union electrician, is out of work because the job in Detroit he was headed to was eliminated when auto plants there shut down. Neither, she said, had been able to file for unemployment insurance “because the system is so messed up and overloaded.”

If she can’t finish her application by Saturday, she will lose this week of pay as well as last, Page said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

“The website just keeps fading in and out and sending you back to the beginning,” she said. "I spent hours this morning trying to sign up with no luck. My husband tried calling for hours and never got through.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t know how long they think we can survive with no money coming in. We are in better shape than a lot of others we know. People are not going to handle this well when the lights and cable get shut off.”

Related: Florida's newly unemployed get little help from troubled state website

For those who can file a claim, Florida’s unemployment insurance program currently pays a maximum of $275 a week for 12 weeks, a meager outlay compared to most other states. During the past decade, the state has also made it difficult for laid off workers to collect benefits.

DeSantis has made a couple moves to make it a little easier. He signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at making benefits available to more people. Applicants no longer have to apply to five jobs a week to receive benefits or fill out an application for Employ Florida, where they previously tracked their progress on finding a new job. That change applies retroactively to March 15.

How bad could it get?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Travel Association revised its projection for how many jobs would be lost in the travel industry from 4.6 million to 5.9 million, a big chunk of which are in Florida. The travel industry losses alone will increase the national unemployment rate from 3.5 percent to 7.1 percent by the end of April, the association predicted.

“Robust intervention by the federal government is the only avenue to make sure those outcomes are minimized," said Roger Dow, the association’s president and chief executive officer.

Related: Coronavirus devastates Florida's travel industry. When will it recover?

Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research predicted the national unemployment rate will rise above 14 percent in the next 90 days and cost the U.S. economy $7 trillion.

“These are likely very conservative estimates, yet it argues that job losses in March, April, May and June may be the four largest in U.S. history, topping the 1.9 million jobs lost in the weeks following V-J Day in September 1945,” said economist Michael Hicks, one of the authors of the Ball State report.

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