2.9 million more seek unemployment assistance. Could unemployment hit 25 percent?

Nationwide, nearly 36 million have applied for unemployment benefits in the last two months. Florida has received more than 1.4 million applications.
More than 35 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the last eight weeks.
More than 35 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the last eight weeks. [ NAM Y. HUH | AP ]
Published May 14, 2020|Updated May 15, 2020

The effects of the coronavirus continue to rumble through the economy, with another 2.98 million people applying for unemployment benefits last week.

The most recent round of massive jobs losses comes two months after the crisis took a stranglehold on the country. The weekly tally likely won’t fall below 1 million until June, economists predict. That’s little solace, given that the record for jobless claims before the current crisis was 695,000, recorded during a week in October 1982.

Almost 36 million people nationwide have now registered for benefits since mid-March, more than one in five U.S. workers.

On the bright side, the total fell for the sixth straight week, down from a high of nearly 6.9 million.

“The runaway train might be stabilizing,” John Johnson, an economist and co-founder of Edgeworth Analytics, said before the numbers came out Thursday. “That’s about as optimistic as I can get right now.”

In Florida, another 221,905 signed up for benefits. That’s up from last week’s 174,860 and is more than 35 times higher than the average week last year. Only Georgia and Connecticut had more claims last week.

As of Wednesday, the state Department of Economic Opportunity said it had processed nearly 1.15 million claims since the start of the crisis, with more than 276,000 waiting to be verified. The state has paid out $1.8 billion to nearly 712,000 people.

Related: The pandemic numbers are scary. How many more records will fall?

The state’s troubled claims system continues to frustrate many out-of-work Floridians. Some still can’t get through to sign up or were erroneously deemed ineligible. Others haven’t received their first payment, despite signing up weeks ago.

Johnny Menth, 35, has run into multiple problems. The Largo resident managed to sign up for unemployment benefits on March 14, the day after he was laid off from his job as a tax analyst at 1-800Accountant in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg.

Almost immediately, Menth said he saw that the state listed that he had been out of work since June 2019, which he worries will reduce what he can collect. Since March he said he has received just four scattered deposits from the state totaling less than $2,100, with no deposits on some weeks and no explanation why.

“There’s no one to answer any of my questions,” he said, adding that he’s emailed the Department of Economic Opportunity and governor’s office repeatedly and tried calling help lines at all times of the day. "There’s no one to fix the date on what they have. I’ve sent emails and gotten no responses. It’s so bogus it’s not even funny. It’s making me go crazy. I just want someone to talk to about it.”

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This week, Menth paid his rent, but was left with just $216 in his checking account. He’s three months behind on his car insurance, and has a $320 car payment coming up.

“It’s been a real big hassle,” he said. “It’s annoying, not knowing and being stressed about how you’re going to live.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has been doing three to five Facebook Live events a week since the start of the crisis, and the one that drew the biggest audience was on applying for unemployment benefits.

“The individuals that I run into, honestly, I can’t recall anyone saying they’ve received their unemployment benefits,” she said this week. Some, she said, can’t "even apply for them.”

When City Hall teamed up with private donors to create the One Tampa relief fund, city officials aimed to help 2,500 city residents pay rent, mortgages and utility bills. They got more than 10,000 calls for help, many of them from outside the city.

Nationally, 43 percent of small businesses were temporarily closed and had reduced their employee counts by an average of 40 percent since January, according to a survey of 5,800 businesses sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the private, nonprofit organization that determines when recessions begin and end. Businesses with fewer than 20 employees were most likely to be closed. Nearly 2 percent of respondents said the pandemic had put them out of business forever.

Small businesses employ nearly half of U.S workers, but many were financially fragile, according to a working paper on the survey, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. Those at the midpoint in the range of the survey have $10,000 in monthly expenses and only enough cash on hand to cover two weeks.

Bryan Del Monte, an economist who also runs the Aviation Agency, an advertising and marketing firm, said the federal government has done a good job in some cases of quickly pushing money into the economy. He pointed to the first round of Paycheck Protection loans for small businesses, a program the federal government created nearly overnight. Banks helped distribute the money in a matter of days.

But in other cases, states and the federal government have dithered, when speed remains of the utmost importance. But it doesn’t matter how much money governments appropriate for unemployment if people don’t receive it, he said. Del Monte had friends laid off in Florida in mid-March who still haven’t received any unemployment benefits.

In a major crisis, federal and state funds help stabilize the economy and keep individuals financially afloat. The money, though, needs to flow quickly to have the maximum impact, he said.

“Think of it this way: The economy took a shotgun blast to the neck. You’ve got to stop the bleeding immediately,” he said. “Don’t be stingy with the bandages.”

Related: Is surging unemployment just the first domino to threaten Florida's economy?

Many of the people who have filed for benefits have been furloughed or temporarily laid off. Others have had their hours reduced enough to qualify for government assistance. In theory, many of those jobs — and the reduced hours — should come back relatively quickly once the economy can open up again, though not everyone is so sure.

There’s also already talk of reining in some of the government spending, despite the national unemployment rate hitting 14.7 percent in April. It’s expected to reach the 20 to 25 percent range in May. (The April unemployment rate for Florida is released next week.)

Johnson, of Edgeworth Analytics, thought it was too soon to start talking about austerity measures.

“No one wants to waste money, and we have to tailor programs so that they don’t create adverse incentives,” Johnson said. “But we are going to have unemployment close to 25 percent. If that’s not the time for government intervention, I don’t know when it is."

• • •

Tampa Bay area layoffs disclosed this week in filings with the state Department of Economic Opportunity include:

• 392 rental car employees laid off by Enterprise Leasing in Tampa. Enterprise group human resource manager Andrea Cormier said in an April 20 letter to the state that the company initially thought the downturn wouldn’t last more than a month. Later it became clear the company would need to lay off employees at its Tampa International Airport location.

• 169 restaurant workers whose hours were cut at six different Hillsborough County locations of three Bloomin’ Brands restaurants: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Aussie Grill by Outback, and Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Express. Bloomin’ vice president for litigation Marquis Heilig said in a notice to the state that the company hoped the reductions would be temporary. In all, Bloomin’ said, the reductions affected 15,643 of its employees at 219 locations.

Those Hillsborough restaurants are all open, Bloomin’ Brands group vice president for corporate affairs Cathie Koch said in an email to the Times. The dining rooms re-opened on May 4 when the state allowed restaurants to resume sit-down service at 25 percent capacity. All employees who completed a retraining course covering safe food handling and new procedures and who want to work are back on the schedule. Scheduled hours are not back to their pre-pandemic levels, but “will be very close when the dining rooms open to 50 percent capacity on Monday,” she said.

• 150 temporarily laid off from the Ocean Prime restaurant near International Plaza in Tampa.

• 150 hotel workers laid off on May 6 from the Hilton Hotel Carillon Park in St. Petersburg. The Hilton closed April 8. Since then, Heartland Hotel, the Iowa-based management company, has tried to negotiate with the owners to continue managing the property, Heartland president Derick Rackham wrote in a letter to the state. “The efforts have been unsuccessful,” he added, and with no certain opening date, the company decided to lay off the entire staff permanently.

• 104 factory workers laid off in Brooksville on April 27 by Micro Matic, a supplier of draft beer, cocktail, water and wine dispensing systems for bars and restaurants. The cutbacks were forced by “an unforeseen, sudden and dramatic loss of business due to mandated bar and restaurant closures,” according to a layoff notice from Micro Matic human resources director Pamela Baldwin.

• 96 marketing company employees that Triad Digital Media in St. Petersburg began laying off in April. The company said it will continue to eliminate jobs through the end of the year and plans to close its offices on Carillon Parkway permanently.

“While this is out of the company’s control, and we could not see this coming, like many other businesses, we need to take immediate action under these dire circumstances,” Triad human resources director Allison Weimann wrote in a letter to employees.

This article was updated May 15 to include the status of Bloomin’ Brands restaurants in Hillsborough County.

• • •

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