Florida sees spike in unemployment claims, with more to come in wake of COVID-19

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

New unemployment claims hit more than 6.6 million across the country last week — and Florida's troubled economy is reflected in that record-breaking number.

Like many other states, Florida has seen a surge in initial claims due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the week ending March 28, most states reported increases in claims, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's report released Thursday.

While Florida's economy has taken a big hit from COVID-19, a much higher number of new filings were seen in such states as California (878,737), Pennsylvania (405,880) and New York (366,403).

In comparison, Florida saw 227,000 new claims filed last week, up from 74,313 the previous week (+152,687).

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According to the Department of Labor's report, Florida has seen layoffs across many service industries. Impacted industries include the retail and wholesale trades, manufacturing and construction, as well as the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

Numbers on claims aren't available by county or region, but like many other areas across the country, Southwest Florida has taken a big blow, especially in the retail and hospitality and tourism industries, which have been forced to layoff or furlough many of their employees due to demand declines and closures brought on by the pandemic.

A furlough is different than a layoff because it's meant to be temporary, pausing workers' pay without letting them go and usually preserving their benefits.

The surge in unemployment claims last week in Florida and across the country didn't surprise Christopher Westley, an economics professor and dean of Florida Gulf Coast University's Lutgert College of Business.

"It reflects that the virus impact didn’t slowly build up over time, but that it hit quickly, resulting in that surge," he said in an email. "Also, given the prediction that unemployment may rise to 32 percent before this is over, you’d expect unemployment claims to reflect that."

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Dozens of businesss were looking to hire employees at a job fair at the Crowne Plaza hotel at the Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers on Wednesday April 17, 2019.

The spread of the coronavirus has turned Florida's heated economy upside down and some experts, such as Westley, expect the situation to get much worse before it gets better.

Florida has a history of overheating during booms and overcorrecting during busts, Westley said.

Before the coronavirus became a pandemic, Florida was contributing to one in 10 new jobs nationally, he said, and as a result Westley expects the state to have an oversized number of unemployment claims in the first and second quarters of this year.

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The severity of the outbreak and the regulatory measures cities, towns and states are taking to control the spread of the virus across the country have hit small businesses particularly hard,  according to a report released Thursday by the NFIB Research Center. 

According to the report, more than 90% of small employers have been harmed by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Only about 3% are positively impacted, due to a sharp rise in the demand for certain products, goods, and services. 

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State-specific data is unavailable, but Bill Herrle, NFIB's executive director for Florida, said in a statement, "Our members thank Governor DeSantis for taking the impact the COVID-19 response would have on Florida's small businesses into consideration. Our members are following CDC guidelines to keep their employees and customers safe. Their focus now is getting everything in order so they can apply for the federal financial assistance they need so they can get through this."

Janeth Castrejon, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida, which matches employers with local employees, said the spike in unemployment claims nationally and in Florida is to be expected. She anticipates the numbers will rise here and across Florida with the issuance of a mandatory stay-at-home-order by Gov. Ron DeSantis and an order to close non-essential businesses taking effect at midnight Thursday. 

"Non-essential businesses will be closing down, so we are going to see a tremendous amount of initial claims and initial claims going up next week as well," Castrejon said.

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CareerSource Southwest Florida has been tracking available jobs and listing immediate openings on its website, and some of those positions have disappeared due to the governor's new order to close non-essential businesses for 30 days.

Among the employers affected by the order? Performance Driven Workforce, which was looking to hire test drivers to support new product development activities in Naples and Fort Myers. 

"The jobs are no longer available," Castrejon said. "So that is an example of positions that were immediately available and now this mandate has prompted them to close down the jobs."

Thursday afternoon the online jobs listing at careersourcesouthwestflorida.com/immediate-southwest-florida-job-openings still showed more than 160 positions that are available in Southwest Florida, from pest control and lawn service technicians to home health aides and cashiers to sheriff's deputies and delivery drivers.

Employers are fast-tracking hiring, understanding the tough situation that many workers are in after suddenly losing their jobs, Wall said.

"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it, family, health and safety is No. 1, but livelihood comes in rapidly after those concerns," he said.

A study by personal finance website WalletHub.com found that Florida had the 13th highest increase in claims in the U.S. from a year ago.

During the same week last year, the state had 5,304 claims. That translates to an increase of more than 4,000%.

According to the study, Florida had the second highest increase in the nation when comparing the claims in the first week of the year to last week.