Coronavirus causes national unemployment to jump nearly 1 percent in March

The jobless rate in March was 4.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sparkman Wharf in Tampa closed to visitors in March as jobs disappeared nationwide. Said one Florida economist, “This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the impact is going to be on the labor market in total."
Sparkman Wharf in Tampa closed to visitors in March as jobs disappeared nationwide. Said one Florida economist, “This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the impact is going to be on the labor market in total." [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published April 3, 2020|Updated April 3, 2020

The national unemployment rate took its greatest jump in 45 years last month, one of the many signs that the wholesale shutdown of businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is quickly ravaging the economy.

It’s likely to get much worse.

The unemployment rate rose nearly a full point to 4.4 percent in March, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released Friday that reflect only a partial month of job losses. The losses continue to surge as much of the leisure, hospitality and tourism industries have ground to a halt. February’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.

Roughly 7.1 million people were unemployed in March, an increase of 1.4 million from February. That’s the largest one-month uptick in unemployment since January 1975.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the impact is going to be on the labor market in total,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

The U.S. lost 701,000 jobs last month, with leisure and hospitality accounting for about 459,000. Most of those losses, about 417,000 jobs, were in food service and bars.

Among the other hardest hit industries were health care, social assistance, retail trade, professional and business services and construction. Health care job loss may seem unexpected, but the sector lost 43,000 jobs nationally, according to the report.

“What’s happened is that because so much equipment and personnel are needed at the hospitals, elective surgeries and doctors appointments" are being canceled, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Dentists’ offices were particularly affected with 17,000 jobs lost, as were physicians’ offices at 12,000 jobs and “other” health care practitioners at 7,000 jobs.

Friday’s jobs report follows a record-shattering number of unemployment claims filed in Florida and nationwide during the two weeks that ended March 28.

In that time, 9.9 million laid-off Americans filed for unemployment benefits nationwide, or about 6 percent of the total U.S. workforce, as a result of business closures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Florida received 301,312 claims during that time, but the total would have been much greater if the state’s claims website had not crashed and blocked many people from filing.

University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers estimated in the New York Times that the actual current unemployment rate for the country is around 13 percent, higher than at any point during the Great Depression.

“The labor market is changing so fast that our official statistics — intended to measure changes over months and years rather than days or weeks — can’t really keep up,” Wolfers wrote.

Vitner with Wells Fargo estimated that the unemployment rate nationally will rise to 9 percent in the short term and peak at around 15 percent.

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The full extent of the economic fallout will become clearer in future job reports as more data roll in. But expect Florida’s peak impact to come a little later, Snaith said, because of the state’s delay issuing a stay-at-home order for residents.

“The labor market impact is going to be a direct function of the length of time the public health measures remain in place,” Snaith said.

Sectors such as leisure and hospitality, as well as tourism, are where Florida is likely to be hit the hardest. They make up a significant portion of the state’s economy and are most directly affected by the pandemic.

“The leisure and hospitality sector is more important to Florida than it is to the nation,” Vitner said.

Florida’s fastest-growing sectors, however, are expected to hold up during this period, including technology and aerospace and especially sectors related to the space and defense industries.

“COVID-19 is not going to be behind us by the beginning of the year,” Vitner said. But as the number of new cases eventually decline, “we should see the economy get on track during the second half of the year.”

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