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More Floridians out of work than anytime in history

Statewide, unemployment hit 12.9 percent, up from 4.4 percent in March. Around the Tampa Bay area, unemployment was even higher in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

The coronavirus pandemic robbed 1.2 million Floridians of a paycheck in April as the state’s unemployment rate hit a modern-day record of 12.9 percent.

More Floridians are out of work now than at any time in the state’s history, surpassing the previous record of a little over 1 million set in February 2010. The state’s unemployment rate also climbed faster than during any previous crisis, one of several records set in the past two months.

“It is what we expected, but it’s hard not to be astonished when you see the numbers,” Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner said about the state jobs report released Friday. “We’ve never seen job losses of this magnitude."

Statewide, more than 1 in 4 who lost a job — 337,500 people — worked for a restaurant, bar or food-service business. In the Tampa Bay area, restaurant and bar jobs fell by more than half from 116,600 to 56,300.

The on-the-ground numbers are likely even worse than the official data.

The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey taken in the middle part of each month. People who say they are out of work but not actively looking for a job are not included in the official rate. In recent weeks, many states including Florida have waived the requirement to search for work to collect jobless benefits. Others aren’t bothering to look because they don’t think there are any jobs to find.

Many others were furloughed, some of whom were counted in the most recent survey as employed but absent from work, so they don’t show up as officially unemployed.

Another factor: In February, 10.48 million people were in Florida’s civilian labor force, which means they were employed or looking for work. The number plunged by more than 1 million to 9.43 million in April, by far the biggest two-month drop in the state’s modern history.

That many people don’t vanish from the workforce so quickly. Some retired, but most of them are likely out of work, and would like a job, even if they aren’t officially counted in the unemployment statistics.

Include those people among the jobless and the state’s April unemployment rate rises above 20 percent.

The same trend occurred with the national jobs figures. The official unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, but about 8 million people left the workforce.

“Eight million baby boomers didn’t all decide to retire at once. That just doesn’t happen in two months,” said Michael Farren, an economist and research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It’s a hidden part of the unemployment picture.”

Farren sees some reasons for optimism. Unlike during most previous recessions, many people were furloughed, which means a job awaits them if the crisis subsides soon. He expected unemployment to peak in the next month or two and then start decreasing as entrepreneurs and business owners find new ways to make customers feel safe enough to start spending money again.

“We can’t keep the economy frozen for a year or two,” he said. “The result could be an actual depression, where you have mass business failures and people becoming dislocated from jobs. That could keep unemployment rates high for a long time, rather than temporarily.”

For Amber Hicks, being swept out of a good job was jarring on many levels.

Like many laid-off Floridians, Amber Hicks of St. Petersburg has run into problems using the state's unemployment benefits website. (Photo courtesy Amber Hicks)
Like many laid-off Floridians, Amber Hicks of St. Petersburg has run into problems using the state's unemployment benefits website. (Photo courtesy Amber Hicks) [ Amber Hicks ]

“The day I found out was a hard day,” said the 31-year-old St. Petersburg resident, who was put on unpaid furlough last month from her job as a project manager for a company that opens bars and restaurants in airports.

Her biggest concern was health insurance, because she was in a car crash a few years ago that left her with pins and screws in an ankle now plagued by arthritis. Fortunately, her company has continued to cover her health insurance as long as she pays the monthly premium. And after much frustration, she’s been paid some but not all of the state and federal unemployment benefits she’s eligible to receive.

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

But even that wasn’t the worst of it.

“I’ve always worked,” Hicks said. "The feeling of not contributing has been really hard for me. ... Probably the hardest adjustment was just kind of feeling worthless.”

Florida businesses hit hardest by the shutdowns include:

• Bars and restaurants, which cut 337,500 employees, or 42.2 percent of their workforce from the month before. Hotels shed another 70,700 workers, more than a third of their staffing.

• Amusement parks, gambling and recreational businesses lost 76,900 jobs, or 32.3 percent of their total.

• Retail, where 123,900 layoffs or furloughs reduced the sector’s workforce by more than 11 percent. The biggest job losses came in clothing and accessory stores (down 53.7 percent), furniture and home furnishings stores (down 30.5 percent) and miscellaneous retailers (down 20.9 percent).

• Employment services firms that provide temporary workers to other businesses. There 41,600 lost jobs reduced payrolls by 21.3 percent.

• Anything to do with air travel. Employers in this sector cut their staffing by 12,300 positions, or 25.7 percent.

• Real estate, which saw a loss of 26,100 jobs, down 17.1 percent from March.

• Health care and social assistance, which lost 94,300 jobs, an 8 percent decline.

The Tampa Bay area posted an unemployment rate of 13.1 percent, up from 4.3 percent in March and 3 percent in February, with a total of 187,052 bay area residents out of work.

Unemployment hit 15 percent in Hernando County, the highest in the region. Pinellas and Pasco both had rates of 13.9 percent. Hillsborough’s rate was 12 percent.

The highest unemployment rate in the state was 20.3 percent in theme park-dependent Osceola County near Orlando, followed by Monroe County in the Florida Keys at 17.5 percent, Orange County at 16.5 percent and Citrus County at 15.8 percent.

Related: 2.4 million more file jobless claims last week, driving total of lost U.S. jobs to 38.6 million

The spike in unemployment set several other new records.

Florida’s unemployment rate rises by 0.2 percentage points or less most months. From March to April, it jumped 8.5 percentage points, by far the largest one-month increase going back to 1976, the start of Florida’s official unemployment records.

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the biggest one-month jump was 1.1 percentage points, which occurred after the terrorist attacks in September 2001. The biggest one-month gain during the financial crisis that started in the late 2000s was just one-half of a percentage point. April’s increase was 17 times higher.

Kaitlyn Velez, of Palm Harbor, gets a pedicure from Lynn Lee, right, on Friday at Westfield Countryside Mall in Clearwater.
Kaitlyn Velez, of Palm Harbor, gets a pedicure from Lynn Lee, right, on Friday at Westfield Countryside Mall in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate took nearly three years to climb from its lows around 3 percent to above 11 percent. This time it took two months.

Vitner said he thinks “the worst has passed in terms of job losses,” but he does expect more cutbacks this month. He hopes to see some gains in June or July.

“I think that some folks were hopeful that the disruption to their business would be shorter than it’s proven to be,” he said. In retail, for example, a lot of temporary furloughs have turned into permanent layoffs.

“We’re going to see more of that because the pace of economic recovery is going to be very slow,” Vitner said. "It’s going to take time for people to choose to re-engage in the economy and for businesses to fully re-engage. I think some folks are going to look at their business models and say, ‘Gosh, with the social distancing guidelines in place, I really can’t make this location work.’ "

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Unemployment rates by state

Florida ranks in the middle of the pack with its 12.9 percent unemployment in April, tied with Alaska and Alabama. The national unemployment rate is 14.7 percent.

1. Nevada – 28.2 percent

2. Michigan – 22.7 percent

3. Hawaii – 22.3 percent

4. Rhode Island – 17 percent

25. Florida 12.9 percent

47. North Dakota – 8.5 percent

48. Nebraska – 8.3 percent

49. Minnesota – 8.1 percent

50. Connecticut – 7.9 percent

• • •

Unemployment benefits: More information

For information about Florida unemployment benefits in general, click here. For information about receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Florida, click here.

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