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Florida’s February jobless rate is already a distant memory

Sunday, March 29, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s jobless rate in February was 2.8 percent, but that doesn’t reflect a coronavirus-fueled spike in claims that has overwhelmed the state unemployment-compensation system during the past two weeks.

The Department of Economic Opportunity on Friday posted the February unemployment rate, which was unchanged from January. But that was based on information from a time before large and small businesses across the state started cutting back or going dark because of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Department Executive Director Ken Lawson said bluntly on Friday the unemployment numbers are going up.

“It’s impacting everybody. Everything we are doing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is having an impact on businesses,” Lawson said. “It’s causing an unprecedented level of individuals, Floridians, our friends and neighbors, applying for unemployment benefits.”

The newly released estimate showed 291,000 Floridians out of work in February from a labor force of 10.46 million, numbers essentially unchanged from January.

On Thursday, however, the U.S. Labor Department reported 3.28 million jobless claims had been filed across the country during the week ending Sunday, with 74,313 by Floridians.

The state received 5,325 unemployment applications the first week in March and 6,463 the second week. But as of Friday morning, 133,000 applications had been filed this week, after restaurants, bars, theme parks, hotels, Major League Baseball spring training games and numerous other types of businesses and venues scaled back operations or were closed.

As the numbers of claims soar, labor leaders and Democrats have raised concerns that the state’s online unemployment-compensation system often shuts down while people are applying and that call centers don’t have enough people to assist.

“The week of March 7, I had 28,000 calls. The week of the 14th, I had 228,000,” Lawson said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has been asking for patience as it reassigns workers to the unemployment-compensation program, hires 100 new employees and pushes a contractor to increase the capacity of the historically troubled online system.

Lawson said Friday he is also bringing in an outside vendor to assist in the increased workload.

“I realize patience is thin in a situation where people are hurting, but my people, my 1,500 people, are fully committed to helping Floridians,” Lawson said. “We are doing everything we can, as a department, to help Floridians get money in their pockets to feed themselves and help their families.”

The leisure and hospitality field, which is taking a heavy brunt of the shutdowns and layoffs, had added 2,100 new jobs in February according to the new numbers.

However, a study released Friday indicated that one in three tourism businesses in the state had laid off employees since March 1.

The study by Destinations Florida, which represents travel-marketing organizations, said 97 percent of tourism businesses had declines in revenue, with hotel occupancy at 23 percent this month compared to 82 percent at the same point in 2019.

Also, nearly 100 percent of hotels, vacation-rental agencies and bed and breakfasts have lost bookings over the next 60 days

Robert Skrob, Destinations Florida executive director, expects the industry to rebound, but he noted the numbers, based on a survey of 995 businesses across 37 counties, “seem bleak at the moment.”

“Once the threat of COVID-19 has abated, we will need Visit Florida, local-tourism promotion organizations and local tourism taxes now more than ever to let potential visitors know that Florida is open for business,” Skrob said. “A return to a healthy, vibrant tourism industry also means jobs and revenue returned to the state.”

Read on News Service of Florida, Ocala Star Banner, Orlando Weekly, Gainseville SunCBS Channel 12, WTVXWLRN,

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