‘Potential disaster’ looms for low-income Floridians as unemployment lingers

The state has regained half the jobs it lost since April.
The state's uneployment rate rose slightly in September. Pictured is Josh Wheeler, 19, filling out an employment form before his interview at the Hard Rock Event Center in Tampa last month. | [Scott Keeler | Times]
The state's uneployment rate rose slightly in September. Pictured is Josh Wheeler, 19, filling out an employment form before his interview at the Hard Rock Event Center in Tampa last month. | [Scott Keeler | Times] [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2020|Updated Oct. 16, 2020

Seven months into the pandemic, Florida’s economy continues to struggle, particularly for those who entered it already holding low-wage jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate rose slightly in September to 7.6 percent after the previous month’s four-point drop, according to figures released by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on Friday. The state has regained half of the 1.2 million jobs it lost between February and April of this year.

But the industries struggling the most during the pandemic are also some of the largest employers of those who weren’t paid well to to begin with.

“We’re staring at a potential disaster for those at the lower income of the income spectrum,” Raymond James senior economist Scott Brown said.

Compared to September 2019, leisure and hospitality, one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, lost the greatest number of jobs (234,900 jobs, down about 19 percent), followed by professional and business services (67,200 jobs, down about 5 percent) and trade transportation and utilities (41,600 jobs, down 2 percent).

Because of their low wages, those hardest hit likely had little in savings and have been potentially out of work for months during the pandemic.

“If they get evicted, if they miss payments on credit cards — it’s not just a missed payment, you get a fee on top of that,” Brown said. “I puts them further into a hole.”

The Tampa Bay region fared better than some parts of the state with unemployment rate at 6.1 percent in September, down from the previous month’s 6.7 percent. Hillsborough County saw a drop to 6.2 percent from 6.9 percent; Pinellas County declined to 5.9 percent from 6.5 percent; Hernando County went to 6.6 percent from 7.3 percent and Pasco County fell to 6 percent from 6.6 percent.

One likely looming issue, Brown said, is local government funding. While local government across the state had a small gain of 12,400 jobs from August to September, the sector is still down more than 38,000 positions from September 2019. Budget issues in this sector during the 2008 financial crisis brought cuts to education, police and fire departments, Brown said.

“The federal government can run budget deficits, (but) most states and cities, they have balanced budget requirements,” he said. “They can’t just increase taxes. What’s left is you have to (decrease) spending.”

Another area of concern is the gender spread at work. A recent “Women in the Workplace” report found that a quarter of women in corporate positions are considering slowing their career paths or leaving the workforce altogether because of the coronavirus. One reason is having to help their children with online schooling, a task that often falls to women in heterosexual relationships.

“The pressures are enormous if you have school-age children at home,” Brown said. “The husband may be there, but the burden falls mostly on the wife.”

The national unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in September.

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