TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA) —Florida’s unemployment rate jumped in March, but it still remained a sign of better times.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity, faced with a massive backlog of new claims, posted an estimated 4.3 percent March unemployment rate Friday, up from 2.8 percent in February.
However, the March number fails to provide a full picture of the economic devastation brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Officials were quick to note that the March rate — reflecting an estimated 444,000 Floridians out of work from a workforce of 10.3 million — shows where the state was in mid-March. That was just when amusement parks and Major League Baseball spring training games were being shut down, but still before many businesses closed or dramatically scaled back.
“The March labor statistics reflect some of the early effects of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it,” a news release from the Department of Economic Opportunity said.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, warned senators Thursday that the “rate for March does not reflect the current condition of unemployment that exists today.” Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, issued an order at the beginning of April directing people to stay home except for “essential” reasons.
“To provide further context, the statewide order regarding essential services and activities was issued on April 1,” Galvano wrote in a memo. “This means that a large portion of the Florida economy was still operating in relatively normal circumstances in mid-March. In this regard, the March unemployment rate embodies only a limited number of the people who will ultimately be affected by the impact of coronavirus.”
Nationally, the March unemployment rate was 4.4 percent. But the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported more than 22 million Americans had filed for aid since a national emergency was declared by President Donald Trump on March 13.
The number of new claims is approaching the total of new jobs — 22.8 million — created nationally in the decade following the 2008-2009 recession.
State Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter wasn’t ready to make a projection Friday on where the rate for Florida could go when numbers are updated again.
Satter, who took oversight of the state’s unemployment efforts Wednesday from Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson, is focused on reducing the claims backlog.
“The task is pretty daunting,” Satter admitted. “I lie awake, for the couple hours that I do lie in bed at night. It’s a task. There are a lot of steps to this. It is a very complicated process, but we are confident we are making progress hour by hour. Hopefully, we are going to get Floridians paid very, very soon.”
As of Thursday, weekly unemployment checks of up to $275 had been issued to just 33,623 of the more than 800,000 Floridians who had applied since the start of March.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, criticized the efforts of DeSantis’ administration to bolster the troubled system as lacking “a sense of urgency.”
“This administration has failed to prioritize out-of-work Floridians, failed to deliver at a time when Floridians most desperately needed it to, overseen an abysmally slow response and put too much effort into masking the crisis rather than fixing it,” Rodriguez said in a prepared statement Friday.
DeSantis, appearing Friday at the opening of a COVID-19 testing center in Fort Lauderdale, called the CONNECT online unemployment system “screwy” and said meeting the needs of people out of work because of the virus is his “economic priority.”
Unemployment applications will continue to be proceed on a first-come first-served basis, including bulk entries from large employers such as Walt Disney Co., DeSantis said.
Satter, repeating an ealier request made by the governor, urged people waiting to for relief to be patient.
“I know it’s difficult. Be patient. Give us a little bit of time,” Satter said. “We have got all of the resources of the enterprise at our beck and call, and we have got a lot of people working 24/7, to get payments out as quickly as possible.”
Satter compared the $77 million CONNECT system, which went online in 2013, to a 7-year-old car designed to travel 40 mph but being asked to do 200 mph “with a payload way beyond its capacity.”
To try to handle the onslaught of claims and questions, hundreds of call-center operators have been rushed through training, paper applications have been made available and more than 100 computer servers have been brought in.
A new website is being created for people who don’t qualify for state benefits but can receive $600 weekly checks that are part of a $2.3 trillion federal stimulus package.
“We are adding additional check-printing capabilities. We are trying to implement electronic payments as quickly as we can, for those that we don’t necessarily have their online banking information,” Satter said.
In the March unemployment numbers, Florida’s leisure and hospitality industries and service-providing jobs were already taking the biggest hits from the virus, accounting for an estimated 76,600 job cuts from February to March.
Real estate jobs were down by 900, and educational services were off 1,500. The state reported increases in the categories of construction, warehousing, transportation and utilities and financial activities.