Exactly 10 years ago, in April 2010, Flagler County’s unemployment rate stood at 15.4 percent, worst in the state. But the rate was improving: it was down from nearly 17 percent the previous month, and it would continue to improve month after month, bottoming out at 3.5 percent for three successive months last fall.
Then came the coronavirus emergency. This morning, the state’s labor department announced that Flagler County’s unemployment rate in April was 15.4 percent, 2.5 percent higher than the state’s 12.9 percent seasonally adjusted rate, and sixth worst in the state, behind Osceola (20.3), Monroe (17.5), Orange (16.5), Citrus (15.8) and Charlotte counties (15.6). Counties with economies heavily reliant on tourism were hit hardest. Florida’s unemployment rate was never this high during the Great Recession.
Over the past 10 years Flagler made a concerted effort to invest in its tourism economy, with significant successes. The downside is that, like Orlando, like the Keys, like other coastal regions that rely on their tourism as economic engines, Flagler is among the counties hurting the most from the dearth of travel and tourists.
The numbers were expected to be grim. Week after week record numbers of people have filed for initial unemployment claims. Some 38.8 million such claims have been filed across the country since mid-March, including 2.44 million in the week ending May 16, with 224,000 first-time claims filed in Florida that week, a thousand more than the week before.
As Flagler County and Palm Coast recovered from the Great Recession in the past 10 years, the county’s workforce grew by 11,200 people, with residents gaining 10,000 jobs along the way. (The jobs were not necessarily in the county: they reflect the number of residents holding jobs either in the county or in surrounding areas.) In 2019, Flagler County’s average unemployment rate was 3.9 percent. The state’s was 3.1 percent.
Ten years ago the number of unemployed residents in Flagler had peaked at 5,337 in August 2010, dwindling to just over 1,555 last December. In April, the number of jobless Flagler County residents was at 6,795, a number never seen in Flagler’s or Palm Coast’s history. The figure is an undercount: many more have filed for unemployment since, according to weekly initial claims.
Another trend is ending for now. Year after year, Flagler’s labor force kept growing. But in April, the labor force of 44,185 had shrunk by 3,200 from March, a 6.8 percent decrease, though the number may also indicate a lag between the time people lose work and the time they are registered as unemployed. The state’s unemployment system has been severely backlogged. Statewide, the labor force shrunk by 9 percent.
Statewide, more than 1 million private sector jobs were lost from March to April, and the number of people with jobs shrank by 1.65 million, to 8.22 million.
Gov. Ron DeSantis today said confidence in the reopening of the economy would help improve numbers, especially if theme parks are to reopen. “What I tried to do there this whole time, and was criticized for it relentlessly, was have a lighter touch because had I took some approaches that were more draconian, I think you’d see those numbers be way worse. Without question, it would be way worse,” DeSantis said, speaking at Ed Austin Park in Jacksonville today, according to the News Service of Florida.
“So, we tried to mitigate that as best as we could. Obviously, when the national shutdown was happening, that’s going to affect Florida, because you’re going to have fewer people that are going to come down here. But we really worked hard to mitigate it, because I understood that when you’re doing these measures, it’s not free and very few people were talking about what could happen on the other end. I was one of the few that was willing to do that.”
Florida, however, remains among the states with the slowest speed in processing unemployment claims, and with the stingiest unemployment compensation system in the United States (and among western democracies), providing just $275 a week for only 12 weeks, down from 26 before then-Gov. Rick Scott changed the system. (The 12-week limit will rise somewhat, now that the state’s unemployment rate has exceeded 5 percent.)
The average in the nation is at 26 weeks. Florida’s weekly unemployment benefits have not been adjusted for inflation since the rate was set at $275 some 12 years ago. Had it kept up with inflation, the benefit would have had to be $334 today. The system also required individuals on the unemployment rolls to abide by the most rigorous set of conditions, including meeting with at least five job prospects a week, to keep benefits. The conditions artificially and deceptively lowered the state’s unemployment rate.
The full unemployment report is below.