Southwest Florida unemployment jumps up in March amid coronavirus pandemic, and experts say it's just the beginning

Andrew Wigdor
Fort Myers News-Press

After months of unemployment lows in Southwest Florida, the jobless rate jumped up in March amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has led to the shuttering of many businesses, causing widespread layoffs and furloughs in the region and beyond. And the worst of unemployment figures are almost certainly yet to come. 

Unemployment reached 4.3% in Lee County and 4% in Collier County in March, up from February rates of 3% and 2.8%, respectively, according to a report released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

This represents a jump of 1.3 percentage points in Lee and 1.2 percentage points in Collier from the previous month. 

In the five-county region of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties, the unemployment rate went to 4.3% in March. This represents a 1.1 percentage point increase over the region’s 3.2% year ago rate. 

Statewide, the unemployment rate jumped to 4.3% after Florida tied for a record low of 2.8% in February.

Even with the unemployment jumps seen in the data, the report does not necessarily reflect the full severity of the economic situation in Southwest Florida or the state for the month of March, according to Christopher Westley, an economist and dean of FGCU's Lutgert College of Business.

Chris Westley is the new dean of the Lutgert College of Business.

He said since the data is collected around the second week of the month for the Department of Economic Opportunity report, it does not show the full picture.

The report itself states, “Note that the March survey reference period that includes the week of the 12th predated many coronavirus-related business and school closures that occurred in the second half of the month.”

"Large parts of the economy were shut down in the second half of the month," Westley said. "So, it's striking that a lot of the negative economic consequences that we are seeing is not found in this data. I think this data for March is not terribly accurate." 

"When the April numbers come out, it's going to indicate a more severe situation," he added. 

More:Collier libraries begin offering paper unemployment applications at 7 locations

A more "accurate depiction of how our regional economy is," Westley said, is an ongoing coronavirus economic impact survey conducted by Florida Gulf Coast University. The first look at the results were provided at the end of March and the data for the survey was collected during the last week of March, Westley said. 

The study showed that in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, customer demand fell off by more than 50% for more than 63% of businesses. The demand dip was even higher — 70% — for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees. 

Additionally, almost 20% of businesses in the survey stated that they had laid off over 80% of their employees. and over 30% said they had reduced working hours for more than 80% of their employees.

Holly Emmons, a restaurant employee who was laid off, protests with others in downtown Naples on Friday, April 17, 2020. The group came out to protest the Florida unemployment system. Many have been out of work for at least a month and haven’t gotten an unemployment check yet.

An early end to season

Despite the report not showing the full, disastrous effects of the pandemic last month, Westley did note that the change from February to March displays an early slow to season, the time of year when many businesses have the most to gain in Southwest Florida due to a yearly influx of visitors. The money businesses make during season tides them over through the slowest months in the fall.

"An increase of over one full percentage point during season is significant," he said.

He referred to the numbers from February's report as "the calm before the storm," and then March as when "the tide is turning." 

A sector that usually brings in many new hires and lots of visitor dollars during March is the tourism and hospitality industry. The report does show that industry taking a hit in the early weeks of March as the coronavirus began to spread rapidly in the state.

"Usually you see an increase in demand for leisure and hospitality through March, and then in April it starts to slow down," he said. "What this data shows is a movement in that direction a bit earlier than what we normally see." 

Overall, leisure and hospitality was one of the industries that lost jobs in Florida in March compared to a year ago, according to the report. The industry was down 11,500 jobs, a decrease of 9% from 2019.

For the metropolitan statistical area of Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island (Collier County), leisure and hospitality employment fell 3.4%, or a loss of 1,100 jobs compared to March 2019, and for the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, employment fell 3%, or a loss of 1,400 jobs. 

Westley said that while this reflects a little bit of the coronavirus impact on the hospitality industry in Southwest Florida, the second two weeks of March that the report doesn't cover would "surely" show double-digit declines.

According to the FGCU survey, customer demand for the hospitality and tourism industry has dropped by more than 87% in Lee, almost 94% in Collier and over 86% in Charlotte.

Hundreds of Southwest Florida restaurant employees saw job losses in March after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the closure of dining rooms in the state, and hotel employees also saw mass layoffs and workplace closings amid increasing travel restrictions. 

Lois Croft, the regional director for Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Glades counties for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said she has been busy “24/7” assisting representatives of the industry to find resources, understand executive orders, get help with loans and more. 

"There's a lot of need,” she said. 

She said that many hospitality workers are currently working on applying for food stamps until their stimulus checks come in. 

The one "silver lining" for the industry, Westley noted, is that business usually begins to slow down as the region reaches the summer months anyway. However, there is some uncertainty in regards to if the seasonal nature of the hospitality industry in Southwest Florida will return to business as usual. 

“But the question moving forward is, how comfortable will people feel in the fall to return and how close will we get to the regular fall demand for that sector?” he said.

Unemployment numbers to climb as virus rages on

Westley said that as the pandemic continues to play out, he would be "surprised" if the region didn't reach double-digit unemployment numbers. 

For context, Florida reached a high of 11.3% unemployment in January 2010 during the Great Recession, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data website. The website data also shows that unemployment reached 13% in August 2010 in Collier and 13.1% in January 2010 in Lee. 

In March, the overall U.S. unemployment rate saw a 0.9 percentage point increase to 4.4%, which represented the largest over-the-month rate increase since January 1975, which also saw a 0.9 percentage point increase, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Jim Wall, the communications director with CareerSource Southwest Florida, is predicting that April's Southwest Florida numbers, which will be released in May, will be "much, much higher than March's."

Westley said that due to the region’s reliance on hospitality, Southwest Florida will most likely suffer more in regards to unemployment than the country and some other areas of the state.

“That’s almost a certainty,” he said. “As the economy is heating, we get a lot hotter in Southwest Florida. But when the economy corrects, we over-correct in Southwest Florida.”

“This region did see, on a county level, double-digit declines in GDP in some of the years following the 2008 recession,” Westley added. “That’s a function of the lack of our diversification in the economy right now.”

Holly Harding of Naples was laid off from her restaurant job six weeks ago. She hasn’t received an unemployment check and can’t get through the online system. She said her unemployment status has been pending for six weeks. She joins others to protest the unemployment system’s flaws on Friday, April 17, 2020, in downtown Naples.

Wall noted that Lee and Collier counties both reached about 13% unemployment during the height of the Great Recession, but Florida only reached around 11%.

"That's for a reason," he said. "We here in Southwest Florida rely heavily on the leisure and hospitality industry, which always reflects more than the statewide unemployment numbers."

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

The good news, however, is that Wall believes that the area will be able to bounce back quicker than that of other historic unemployment highs, such as in the Great Recession and Great Depression. 

He stated that at the height of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 24.9% in the U.S. in 1933 and stayed above 14% until 1940.

"This will not take seven years to recover," Wall said.

Employers could implement long-term changes due to pandemic

Wall referred to recent months before the pandemic as "a hot economy" and a "job-seekers market where there were more jobs than there were job seekers."

"Because the economy was so hot, people were hiring applicants when they didn't necessarily have a position, but they found someone with good skills and good work ethic and they found positions for these people." 

"In the last quarter of 2019, we were all at record unemployment," he added. 

Photo gallery:Southwest Florida residents affected by coronavirus pandemic

He stated that anything under 4% is considered to be "full employment," meaning there is a job for every individual.

When it gets above 4%, he said there are "other consequences," including businesses considering slashing available positions. 

This is what Wall refers to as "rightsizing," where businesses employ some sort of position analysis and explore artificial intelligence and automation to lower the amount of people they need to hire. 

And with the pandemic's sky-high numbers appearing directly after an economic hot streak, this consequence is very possible. 

For now and after the pandemic is over, businesses will have a larger pool of applicants to pick from and will be "more methodical" as they begin bringing more people in after layoffs, Wall said. 

Wall said that, for example, if an employer has a 50-person business before the pandemic and was forced to lay everyone off, they may never go back to that 50-person level.

"They'll try to do more with less," he said.

Unemployment numbers cause strain on state benefit system 

Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been applying for unemployment benefits in recent weeks as the pandemic has led to more and more job losses. In the week ending April 11, there were 181,293 new initial claims in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the country overall, there were 5,245,000 seasonally adjusted initial claims that week.

With so many people out of a job, thousands of Floridians have had issues in applying for and receiving their unemployment benefits due to an unreliable system. The state's online CONNECT portal, where applicants are supposed to file claims, has been a steady source of frustration for many. 

"It just takes me in circles," Janet Cruz, a Fort Myers resident, said. "The website was down and I called and it hangs up on me because they have too many callers. It's just been a nightmare." 

A group of unemployed workers came out to protest the Florida unemployment system on Friday, April 17, 2020, in downtown Naples. Many have been out of work for at least a month and haven't gotten an unemployment check yet.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in early April that the system was not handling the needs of citizens in an "adequate way" and issued an order that moved to up the capacity for the online CONNECT system and allow paper applications.

"I know that there's a lot of people that are unemployed, and I understand that traffic can cause a crash," Cruz said. "But this is ridiculous."

Cruz, 45, who worked as an insurance agent in Bonita Springs, estimates that she has spent about 20 hours applying for benefits since she lost her job in early March. She was able to file successfully for the first time on March 10 but has yet to receive any benefits. 

"That's 20 hours in which I could be looking for a job," she said.

Certain individuals across the state have even been organizing public protests to demand that officials do more in helping residents get their benefits. One of these protests was held on Wednesday in Cape Coral, and another was held in downtown Naples on Friday. 

Vicki Hill of Cape Coral used to drive a food truck, and she drove for Uber and UberEats.

She tried to organize a rally Wednesday night at Big John’s Plaza in Cape Coral, but as many media members as protesters showed up in their cars in the parking lot: four of each. She wanted to raise awareness as she has yet to receive any unemployment benefits.

“It’s been five weeks now,” Hill said. “They haven’t been able to remedy the issues. Three weeks ago, I received notice that my case was ‘pending review.’ And that’s after waking up at five in the morning and spending hours and hours trying to get something done.”

Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida, which covers the five-county area of Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte, has been working to help people who are out of work, and the demand is high. 

Through Goodwill's career resource centers, workers are assisting unemployed people with filling out unemployment applications, gaining access to food stamps and applying for other benefits.

She said that the centers are seeing about 300 to 500 people per week calling and asking for assistance, and she anticipates that doubling soon. 

And Goodwill itself has been hit hard by the virus. All stores in the Southwest Florida region are currently closed, and Carolyn Johnson, the region's vice president of communications and development, said that the region has gone from more than 800 Goodwill employees to currently operating with less than 10% of their workforce.

All those who aren't working right now were put on a two-week paid furlough, and then after that, they're able to use all of their paid vacation and personal time. 

She said the stores fund about 50% of all of Goodwill's programs and services in the region.

"With our stores being closed," she said. "It's a huge impact to us."

News-Press reporter David Dorsey contributed to this article. 

Reach Andrew Wigdor at and on Twitter @andrew_wigdor