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New unemployment claims drop across U.S., Florida

The number of new claimants hasn't been this low since March, but it's still the 20th straight week over 1 million.
Paula Reed, 64, poses for a portrait on the 19th day of her hunger strike in the patio of her sister and brother-in law's home, where she lives, in Apollo Beach on July 31, 2020. During the 20-day strike, Reed said only consumed liquids to protest against Florida's unemployment system.
Paula Reed, 64, poses for a portrait on the 19th day of her hunger strike in the patio of her sister and brother-in law's home, where she lives, in Apollo Beach on July 31, 2020. During the 20-day strike, Reed said only consumed liquids to protest against Florida's unemployment system. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 6, 2020
Updated Aug. 6, 2020

After two straight weeks on the rise, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims dropped Thursday to its lowest level since mid-March.

About 1.19 million Americans filed new jobless claims for the week ending Aug. 1, a drop of about 249,000 from the previous week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s the nation’s 20th straight week with more than 1 million new claims, and it brings the total number of Americans who have filed unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic to 55.6 million.

Claims among Floridians also decreased, with 73,955 residents filing for unemployment insurance, a drop of more than 17,500 from the previous week. That’s the lowest of any week during the pandemic, except for the holiday week of July 4. To date, the state has handed out $13 billion in state and federal relief to 1.84 million claimants.

Still, as Congress debates whether to extend federal unemployment benefits into the fall, job sectors that remain hard-hit in Florida, including tourism and air travel, keep seeing losses.

Related: With $600 checks disappearing, unemployed Floridians are facing a 'perfect storm' of problems

Two more Tampa Bay hotels have notified the state of plans to extend layoffs. The Tampa Hilton Downtown said it plans to lay off 40 workers and extend furloughs for 86 others, while the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach said it would extend layoffs for 74 employees.

Silver Airways, a regional airline based in Fort Lauderdale, announced that starting Oct. 1, it plans to permanently lay off 224 employees around Florida, including 55 in Tampa.

Workers who lose their jobs now are less confident they’ll be able to find work in the near future, according to a new survey from the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of local business leaders.

The survey reported that since May, more local residents said they’d been let go or had their hours or pay reduced. Forty percent of those let go said they’d unsuccessfully searched for a new job, while 43 percent said they didn’t feel confident they’d be able to find a similar job for similar pay.

“There’s clearly a lot of volatility in the job market,” said Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans. “The stop-and-start of the economy, and the fact that there have been continued furloughs and layoffs, we think reflects the fact that businesses opened and then had to pull back, and people got laid off or cut back.”

Related: Survey: Coronavirus pandemic will get worse before it gets better, locals say

That uncertainty has infuriated those who’ve spent weeks, if not months, trying to claim unemployment.

Paula Reed, 64, poses for a portrait on the 19th day of her hunger strike outside her sister and brother-in law's home, where she lives, in Apollo Beach on Friday, July 31, 2020. Reed said she is only consuming liquids throughout her protest against Florida's unemployment system.
Paula Reed, 64, poses for a portrait on the 19th day of her hunger strike outside her sister and brother-in law's home, where she lives, in Apollo Beach on Friday, July 31, 2020. Reed said she is only consuming liquids throughout her protest against Florida's unemployment system. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Among them: Paula Reed, 64, an Apollo Beach freelance technical writer whose clients dropped her contracts early in the pandemic. She was deemed ineligible for state unemployment insurance, but eligible for $125 per week through the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, plus $600 a week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

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But when she initially filed in March, she mentioned she’d quit a job she held in early 2019. That prompted the state to flag her application, setting off a months-long delay for her federal payment. She spent hours on hold, sent emails, left voice mails, struggled through error messages and reached out to state representatives. Finally, in late July, she received almost her entire allotment of insurance, around $9,000 in all.

But by that time, she’d had enough. On July 13, she embarked on a hunger strike that lasted 20 days — a quiet, private protest of the state’s unemployment system.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I can’t abide it,” she said. “My feeling is that we’re being lied to, constantly. ... They tell us, ‘Oh, everything’s fine, the system’s fine, next question.’ I just see things that are going on that are inexcusable after four months.”

Related: Firm behind Florida's faulty unemployment website gets $135 million state contract

What Reed would like to see is a federal audit of Florida’s unemployment system, to find out how these weeks-long struggles keep happening. She’d like to see the state implement a process where those who’ve waited the longest for their benefits get moved toward the front of the line, so their complaints can be addressed and everyone can move on.

“Screen people who haven’t been paid for a month, either in whole, or in part,” she said. “Get those people into a queue. Escalate them to workers and employees who can help them. This is just fundamental stuff.”

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