Thirteen weeks into the pandemic unemployment crisis, Florida this week passed another ugly milestone: More than 2 million residents are now seeking some form of unemployment assistance.
But on Thursday came signs that tally is slowing.
Last week, 86,298 Florida workers applied for unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — the first time since mid-March that number has been under 100,000. It pushed Florida down to fifth in the nation for new unemployment claims, behind California, Texas, New York and Georgia.
That’s still way above the pre-pandemic record of 40,403 weekly claims set in 2009 during the Great Recession. But it’s indicative of a recent positive trend.
During the first five weeks after businesses shut down to slow the spread of the virus, unemployment claims in Florida averaged nearly 306,000 a week. For the most recent five weeks, the average number of new claims has been 161,396.
For the week ending June 6, Florida saw its number of new claims decrease by more than 95,000 — the biggest drop in the nation, more than five and a half times that of runner-up Texas. The week before, Florida had the highest one-week increase in claims of any state.
Nationally, 1.5 million Americans filed new unemployment claims for the week ending June 13, a slight decrease from the week before. A total of 45.5 million Americans have now applied for unemployment out of a total U.S. labor force of 164.5 million.
Florida’s silver linings tempered the news that the state’s number of unemployment claims this week surpassed 2 million, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity. In just the last week, claims paid out an additional $1.37 billion in state and federal funds, bringing the total allotted to Floridians since March to $6.32 billion to 1.39 million applicants.
But just because that money is flowing doesn’t mean everyone with an approved application is getting it.
On May 19, thousands of Floridians stopped receiving $600 weekly federal payments due to technology issues involving residents who had requested their claims be backdated.
Justin Boyle, 40, of Tampa was among them. He was let go from Dade City’s public utilities department in late April, but managed to secure state and federal assistance within his first week of unemployment. But when the federal money stopped without explanation in May, he couldn’t find answers about what was happening. So far, he’s out $1,800 he should have been paid.
“There’s thousands of people like me, and there’s thousands of dollars missing at this point that are owed to us,” he said. “And we can’t get answers from representatives. We can’t get answers from the unemployment place. When we call in, they hang up the phone. People just can’t get through, all day long.”
Last week, Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, D-Orlando, posted a form for residents to sign if they were missing federal unemployment checks. More than 8,500 signed up in the first day. Some payments have since resumed.
“Many people have seen one $600 payment, some have seen all, many are still waiting,” Eskamani said via email.
Hospitality and tourism continue to be hard hit, with the Hyatt Regency Miami and W South Beach in Miami Beach reporting last week nearly 600 combined layoffs. On May 29, the Westin Tampa Harbour Island Hotel notified the state that 93 employees who have been temporarily laid off have been told that their separations are now expected to last for more than six months.
Also in late May, the Gaylord Palms Convention Center and Resort in Kissimmee announced plans to reopen June 25. Yet a week later, the Marriott property informed the state that layoffs, furloughs and hourly reductions that began in March would continue for all 1,311 of its employees. General manager Johann Krieger told the state it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the cutbacks would extend past September.
While declining to comment on Gaylord Palms, Marriott spokesman Casey Kennett acknowledged travel and social distancing restrictions have led to “significant drops in customer demand.”
“Hotels are adjusting operations accordingly, which has impacted employment, resulting in staffing reductions, temporary leaves, and in some cases, termination notices,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile in some sectors, the Tampa Bay area’s attempts to reopen for businesses have started, stopped and sputtered, as both the state and local counties reported record new daily coronavirus cases.
After just a few weeks open, various local bars and restaurants have temporarily closed again, either due to employees testing positive for COVID-19, or out of an abundance of caution.
Still, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said the state had no intention of “rolling back” its reopening plan.
“Would shutting down the state stop some of the examples (of coronavirus outbreaks)? I don’t think so,” he said. “You have to have society function. You have to be able to have a cohesive society. That’s the best way to be able to deal with the impacts of the virus, but particularly a virus that disproportionately impacts one segment of society. To suppress a lot of working-age people at this point, I don’t think would likely be very effective.”
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