Data shows mixed signals for Florida’s economy

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – New unemployment claims in Florida last week jumped by almost 50% from the previous week, continuing a yo-yo cycle of applications for jobless benefits. Meanwhile the state’s unemployment rate last month nudged down ever so slightly, according to figures released this week.

The mixed signals on Florida’s service-oriented economy reflect the uncertainty posed by the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time that more Floridians are getting vaccinated, more contagious strains of the virus have been found in the U.S.

Florida last week had 57,824 new jobless claims, a jump from the previous week’s 39,226 new claims, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor. By comparison, new unemployment claims nationwide last week dropped more than 7% to 847,000 applications.

Florida’s unemployment rate in December dipped slightly to 6.1% from 6.3% in November, continuing a downward trend, according to figures released Tuesday. The state reached a high of 13.8% last April amid virus-related business closures.

Florida has lost 1.1 million jobs since the start of the pandemic last March but has gained back only 718,700 jobs. The leisure and hospitality industry has suffered the greatest, losing 197,000 jobs, or 15%, from the prior year.

In December, St. Johns and Wakulla counties had the state’s lowest unemployment rate, at 3.6%. Osceola County, outside Orlando, had the state’s highest unemployment rate, at 8.7%.

At the height of Florida’s unemployment last year, the state struggled to keep up with the flood of unemployment applications. Adding to the distress was the state’s relative stinginess: Florida provides among the lowest weekly benefits of any state and the briefest time the jobless could receive benefits – just 12 weeks.

Democratic lawmakers are pushing to boost benefits, but it remains to be seen if the move will gain any traction among Republicans who control the statehouse.

At the start of the year, the state increased the duration people are eligible for benefits – from the minimum 12 weeks to 19 weeks, as prescribed by state law.

The duration for unemployment benefits is set by the average unemployment rate for the third quarter of the previous year. From July through September, Florida’s unemployment rate was just below 9%, and state law dictates that the unemployment benefit period be extended a week for every half percent the average unemployment rate exceeds 5%.

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