ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida’s unemployment rate shot up to 4.3% in March, as coronavirus-induced closures of Florida’s theme parks, hotels and large numbers of businesses caused the highest levels of joblessness in almost two years.
It was a dramatic increase from the state's previous month's unemployment rate of 2.8%. Florida's workforce shrank by 120,000 workers from February to March, labor officials said.
Economists warned that March's preliminary numbers didn't capture the extent of the damage caused by business closures.
“Just because it’s still pretty recent, the data cannot capture the current economic situation. It still shows a very dark outlook,” said Hector H. Sandoval, the director of the economic analysis program for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.
The last time Florida's unemployment rate was that high was in May 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
State economic officials said the survey was conducted in mid-March and most of the school and business closures in Florida took place in the second half of the month., so the 444,000 jobless Floridians reported in March could be much greater. More than 800, 000 Floridians have filed applications for unemployment benefits in the past month, state officials said Thursday.
Among those who lost their jobs last month was Ivette Cruz, who worked for a third-party caterer that fed the workers at Walt Disney World. The theme park resort outside Orlando closed its gates to the public in mid-March because of coronavirus concerns, and Disney officials say they don't know when it will reopen.
“Right now, I’m not paying any of my bills,” Cruz said. “The only thing I paid with my last check was light and water. I called the credit card companies and some of them are giving me two or three months extensions. But right now, I’m stressing out because I have to come up with this money.”
The real extent of the damage is not going to be apparent until the April report comes out, said Sean Snaith, the director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Forecasting.
The impending furloughs of more than 43,000 workers at Walt Disney World will surely further swell the state’s number of jobless, particularly in industries that rely on tourism, Snaith said.
“You just can’t shut off large swaths of the economy and expect that there’s any better outcome than what we’re seeing,” Snaith said. “As close to real-time data that we have in the economy is the unemployment claims, and here in Florida there has been a bit of a bottleneck in getting those processed. Even those aren’t giving the best picture at this point.”
Many of the state’s hundreds of thousands of newly jobless have reported problems when filing applications for unemployment benefits with the state's economic development agency or getting help from hotlines. They’ve had their online applications disappear in front of their eyes when the computer refreshes or they’ve been bumped out of the system while filling out forms, forcing them to start over.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that getting the system to work better has become the top priority of Florida officials.
“There’s been a massive surge of resources in terms of manpower," DeSantis said in Fort Lauderdale.
Alejandra Vega Mathew lost her job last month as a server at an Orlando International Airport restaurant. She and her mother had been saving money to buy a new car, but now those plans have been thrown out the window.
“Now we’ll have to start all over again. It’s been really, really hard,” she said. “We’ve paid our rent so we have a place to live. But anything other than rent or food has been delayed.”