March Jobless Rate a Preview of Higher Figures Later This Year
Florida’s unemployment rate shot up to 4.3% in March, as coronavirus-induced closures of theme parks, hotels and large numbers of businesses caused the highest levels of joblessness in almost three years.
The last time Florida’s unemployment rate was that high was in May 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Obviously, this is a health issue; but if you look outside of that we’re now in an economic crisis as well because of the results of this national shutdown,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking Friday in Fort Lauderdale.
The April rate is a dramatic increase from the previous month’s 2.8% mark. And economists warn that March’s preliminary numbers don't capture the extent of the damage caused by business closures. And the real jobless situation, they say, won’t be clear until April’s numbers are tabulated.
“Everything that goes into losing a job – especially through no fault of your own, through what’s really happened with this economy – we need to make sure the folks that have been displaced are able to get back on their feet,” DeSantis said. “And one of the things we’ve been working hard on is getting this reemployment assistance working better.”
More than 180,000 workers filed claims with the state’s struggling unemployment system last week bringing to more than a half million seeking benefits since a statewide lockdown last month.
“They didn’t have the capacity [or] manpower either, and we said, ‘we’ve got to fix this.’ We’ve made it our number one economic priority,” said DeSantis. “I have staff not only from the Department of Economic Opportunity, but also the Department of Management Service working around the clock. There’s been huge changes made to this system.”
Part of those changes involves putting 100 new servers online to handle claims from the hundreds of thousands of Floridians seeking relief — a far cry from this time in 2019, when there were about 350,000 filings for the entire year.
“We’ve got over 2,000 people now involved who are either taking calls, or training so they’ll be able to do that,” the governor said. “If you go back a month and a half ago, there were probably 30 people in the entire state doing it. And that was actually enough, because we had such a low unemployment rate.”
Along with the additional call-center workers and a massive surge of resources, the governor is enlisting other state agencies to give a hand to the Department of Economic Opportunity in what DeSantis, a Navy veteran, calls “all hands on deck.”
“We already have 1,000 of those working cases, and we’re going to add more as need be,” DeSantis said. “We also recognize that not everyone has access to online right now. So, we did a partnership with Federal Express to offer free printing and mailing of reemployment assistance applications at all their storefront locations.”
DEO already has received more than 20,000 paper applications through FedEx. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the governor has waived three laws to be able to speed up outgoing relief.
“We’ve waived work-search requirements,” said the governor. “I waived the prohibition on receiving payment the first week after applying for assistance – that’s the ‘waiting week’ – and I waived the requirement that individuals recertify their unemployment status every two weeks after applying.”
But there’s still more work to do, says DeSantis, including technology upgrades aimed at better efficiency.
“Last week, we sent out 35,000 payments; this week, we’ve already sent out 100,000 payments to people,” said the governor. “We’ve got to continue to do it because it’s important to a lot of people — people don’t know what’s going to happen economically. I think we have a path back, but for right now people need to be able to put food on their table and pay their rent.”
The lagging unemployment system has led to a change at the top of the Department of Economic Opportunity. Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Department of Management Services, is now in charge of the system.
“I know it’s difficult; be patient [and] give us a little bit of time,” said Satter. “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.”
Ken Lawson will remain as DEO’s executive director.