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State expects employment push to start paying off

Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle and Tallahassee restaurant owner Eddie Agramonte appeared at a May news conference about efforts to boost the workforce.
News Service of Florida
Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle and Tallahassee restaurant owner Eddie Agramonte appeared at a May news conference about efforts to boost the workforce.

With weekly unemployment claims rolling in at pre-pandemic numbers, state leaders say they remain optimistic about seeing results from a summer push to get people back into the labor force.

The U.S. Department of Labor issued a report Thursday that estimated 6,502 new jobless claims were filed in Florida during the week that ended Sept. 25, down from a revised count of 9,316 for the week ending Sept. 18. The initial projection for the week ending Sept. 18 was 6,845.

Since mid-May, the state has averaged 7,946 new claims a week.

The average is far below an April 2020 peak, when the weekly average of claims topped 322,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive economic upheaval.

State officials in recent months have pressured people to return to the workforce, including cutting off $300 a week in federal unemployment aid for many jobless people.

On Wednesday, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle told Enterprise Florida board members that those efforts should soon start to pay off.

“We are well on our way towards that full recovery,” Eagle said during an Enterprise Florida board meeting at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota. “However, the state still does have over 500,000 jobs available and still over 500,000 who are unemployed. So, there is a disconnect in our economy. And that is the call to action.”

In June, the state withdrew early from two federal assistance programs --- the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation programs --- and reimplemented a “work search” requirement for people seeking unemployment benefits.

Other federal unemployment programs that were part of pandemic recovery efforts ended Sept. 6.

“Thankfully, the federal benefits have ended,” Eagle said. “If you want to be on unemployment, you'd have had to have worked within the last year within the last 12 months. There's no longer the opportunity to collect indefinitely, that is no longer an option as of Labor Day. Now, that was a month ago. So, I think that those realities will start to trickle in. And hopefully you'll see some real action.”

But the decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to cut off the federal benefits in June drew criticism from Democrats and other opponents, who said many jobless people needed the continued aid. A group of Broward County residents filed a legal challenge to the move, though a Leon County circuit judge last month backed the administration.

The lawsuit, filed in July, said the decision to cut off benefits caused “substantial and irreparable harms” to the plaintiffs, who had lost jobs during the pandemic.

Florida had a 5.0 percent unemployment rate in August, representing 529,000 people qualifying as being unemployed out of a workforce of 10.54 million. In May, the state’s workforce stood at 10.31 million, with 503,000 people qualifying as unemployed.

September unemployment figures will be released Oct. 22.

Eagle praised economic-reopening efforts that DeSantis started in mid-2020, saying the state has focused on balancing “health and safety with our economic livelihood.”

One of the biggest hurdles remains finding people to work in the leisure and hospitality industries, which were among the hardest-hit fields during the pandemic.

Democrats such as Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando have repeatedly said that many former service-industry workers decided to leave the field during the pandemic for positions with more pay and benefits.

On Thursday, the first installment of a voter-approved increase in Florida’s minimum wage went into effect, bumping the rate from $8.65 an hour to $10. The minimum wage will increase $1 a year until reaching $15 on Sept. 30, 2026.

Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson on Wednesday called the situation with job openings “a crisis” that is “holding us back from even more economic progress and economic diversification.”

Wilson told Enterprise Florida members that 25 of Florida’s 67 counties have fewer jobs than before the pandemic and that fields such as finance have exceeded pre-2020 numbers while leisure and hospitality jobs are far below the pre-pandemic level.

“Right now, the elephant in the room is we have more jobs (available) than we have people qualified to fill those jobs,” Wilson said. “This is a problem all across the country. But it's one that's really going to slow Florida.”

Wilson said it could take until the middle of 2023 before industries such as leisure and hospitality fully recover from the pandemic.