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Want to feel old? Read Florida’s jobs report from last month

The numbers for February paint a rosy picture. Here’s how bad they could get.
Want to feel old? Read last month's jobs report.
Want to feel old? Read last month's jobs report. [ AP ]
Published Mar. 27, 2020
Updated Mar. 27, 2020

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Florida released what may be the most useless jobs report in its history on Friday. It’s no one’s fault. The coronavirus crisis ripped across the economic landscape with unprecedented speed.

In days, the state went from smooth sailing to smashed on the rocks. And the ride is likely to get worse.

But that isn’t reflected in the state’s employment picture for February. The snapshot is a glowing reminder of better days.

The unemployment rate remained at 2.8 percent, a record low. The state created a satisfactory 7,100 jobs. Nearly every major sector added jobs, including leisure and hospitality, also known as hotels, restaurants, bars and tourist attractions. Most of the state’s 24 metro areas posted job gains, too.

None of that feels right anymore, now that the coronavirus has treated the economy like a puppy does a chew toy.

Sometimes the study of economics is common sense made difficult, Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner says. This is one of those times. Circumstances have blown by — and blown up — the month-old jobs report.

“I think your common sense gives you a better read on the economy than any of the current economic data,” he said.

For much of February, restaurants were still hopping and our airports were full of tourists. The March numbers that come out in a few weeks will be far worse. But even those won’t capture the whole story. The jobs report is based on data collected near the middle of each month, so the tally won’t reflect the swath of layoffs in last couple of weeks.

The April numbers, which won’t come out until May, could be the worst we’ve seen in decades, especially given the record number of Floridians applying for unemployment benefits.

At 4.8 percent, Citrus County had the highest unemployment rate in the state last month. By May, 4.8 percent will feel aspirational.

Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, wouldn’t be surprised to see the unemployment rate hit 10, 15 or even 20 percent, depending on how long we stay hunkered down.

“I talked to a bunch of Wall Street economists recently, and we’re all in the same boat," he said. “We have a best-case and a worst-case scenario, and the next week, we’re using the worst-case as our best-case.”

The Great Recession was scary. Unemployment hit 11.3 percent in Florida as the housing market crashed. Foreclosures exploded, so did bankruptcies. The stock market imploded, shedding more than half its value. But that all happened in slow motion compared to the speed at which the current crisis has crippled the economy.

That doesn’t mean this will last as long or be as devastating, but it helps explain why much of our traditional economic data feels so dated, at least for the next few weeks.

On the upside, Florida often recovers from recessions faster than other states, as long as the real estate market wasn’t recklessly overbuilt. Vitner thinks that April will be the worst month for the coronavirus outbreak and the economy.

“We will get through this,” he said.

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