The American economy approached another grim milestone last week as 2.1 million more workers filed claims for unemployment benefits.
That pushes the total number of jobs lost over the 10 weeks since shutdowns began to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus to 40.7 million.
That’s 24.7 percent of the nation’s labor force of 164.5 million — or close to one in four U.S. workers.
Floridians filed another 173,731 claims last week, down from 225,404 the week before.
Earlier this week the state Department of Economic Opportunity said it so far has received claims from more than 1.7 million people. Through Tuesday, it had paid a total of $3.5 billion to more than 1 million jobless workers.
From the start, Florida’s unemployment insurance program, which pays up to $275 a week in state aid and $600 a week in federal pandemic aid, has been plagued by breakdowns and overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said some applicants seeking the aid had filled out the forms wrong.
But applicants like Adam Schmittauer of Tampa say it’s virtually impossible to get answers from the state about what’s going on with their claims.
Schmittauer, 33, was furloughed from his job as a residential and commercial construction project manager on March 22, applied for unemployment benefits on March 26, then reapplied on May 18.
He has not received a dime from the state.
“I’ve spent eight weeks calling and calling and calling I can’t get a hold of anybody,” he said Thursday.
Going into the pandemic, Schmittauer had built up savings for an emergency, but has since exhausted them. His wife’s work as a therapist has kept food on the table and some bills paid, but he has two children, ages 2 and 5, and needs to buy diapers. He worries about his phone getting turned off, making it even harder to find out what’s going on. He is, he says, a nervous wreck.
“I’ve never felt so helpless in my life,” he said. “You work hard. You pay into these benefits. Now it’s like I’m pleading just to, like, bargain with them: Can I have anything?”
Other applicants describe getting sporadic payments with no explanation for the interruptions. Ina Nichols, 51, of New Port Richey said her application was approved April 20, and she received payments until this week. Her mother in law and a friend likewise did not receive anything this week, she said.
“Just so disappointing,” Nichols, who has not been able to reach anyone from the state, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Thursday’s weekly unemployment claims news followed a monthly jobs report from last Friday that disclosed that more than 1.2 million Floridians had lost jobs due to the coronavirus shutdowns — more than at any time since the state began keeping records.
The previous record was a little more than 1 million in February 2010 at the depths of the Great Recession.
“We knew it was coming,” Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner said after the monthly jobs report came out. “You can’t shut down the economy for a month — actually, two months now — and not see these kind of job losses.”
In the Tampa Bay area, a handful of industries that include hotels, restaurants, bars, temporary employment agencies, retail stores, health care facilities and entertainment businesses accounted for less than 45 percent of regional jobs before the pandemic.
But a new analysis from the nonprofit Tampa Bay Partnership said those industries have produced more than 71 percent of the region’s unemployment claims.
The unemployment rate for an eight-county area around Tampa Bay hit 13.34 percent in April, the partnership said. That was about the same as the state as a whole. Among metro areas, the bay area’s was higher than the best-in-Florida rate of 11.2 percent for Jacksonville but lower than the 16.2 percent in tourism-dependent Orlando.
Around the bay area, corporate layoff notices that have been made public over the past week included:
• 103 employees temporarily furloughed or scheduled to be permanently laid off from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
“Many of the shows we had hoped to have on our stages later this year will now be delayed,” the Straz Center’s Becky Berns wrote in a layoff notice last week. The changes include the permanent layoffs of 28 employees furloughed in mid-March. Furloughs and layoffs are expected to continue to take place through late July. The jobs affected include bartenders, kitchen staff, food service workers, security officers, administrative staff, electricians and technicians, and members of the center’s programs for music, theater and dance.
• 70 employees that Air Canada plans to put on unpaid furloughs between July 1 and Sept. 1 at its call center near Tampa International Airport.
• 45 medical assistants, receptionists, nurses and other employees laid off temporarily from the Children’s Medical Center in Palm Harbor in late March.
“We had to lay off employees due to the limited amount of patients in our practice,” administrator Michael Franks said in a letter to the state. “This action affected ... not quite 50 percent of our total employee roster. There are no plans to close any of our facilities at the present time.”
• 88 housekeepers, banquet servers, van drivers and other employees, totaling about a third of the staff, laid off this month from the DoubleTree Tampa Airport Westshore hotel on W Cypress Street.
“In mid-March, the hotel put most of its employees on furlough status due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” hotel human resources director Donna Bolich said in a letter to the state. “The expectation was the furlough would last 60-90 days. This no longer appears to be the case,” partly because of “uncertainty over when business levels will begin to rebound.” So in mid-May the hotel began to convert many of the furloughs to layoffs.
That kind of uncertainty likely will temper the pace of the recovery, Vitner said.
“In terms of going forward, I think the re-openings are going to be slower than many people expect, because folks are not going to fully engage in the economy until they feel safe,” he said.
“This is this is going to be with us for quite some time. And as more and more people begin to factor that into their business plans, that’s when I think folks are really going to make some hard decisions that they have been hoping they wouldn’t have to make.”
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