After Flagler County’s unemployment rate dropped sharply from its Covid peak of 15.4 percent in April, it kept dropping until the summer spike sent the unemployment rate up again, then dropped sharply again, but only for a month, before it stalled in September and October: the unemployment rate in October was 5.7 percent, down a statistically insignificant decimal point from the previous month.
That’s in contrast with both national and, to a lesser extent, state improvements. The national economy shaved a full percentage point off the unemployment rate in October, dropping to 6.9 percent, though that improvement is expected to dim as the effects of covid’s third wave reverberate. Florida’s rate dropped from 7.2 to 6.5 percent, adding 51,600 jobs over the month despite a steep drop of 9,500 government jobs, 8,500 of them temporary federal Census workers whose assignments ended.
The slowdown is mirrored in a drop in consumer confidence in October after the consumer confidence index had also improved markedly the month before, according to the University of Florida’s Survey Research Center, which tracks consumer confidence monthly. Older people and people with incomes below $50,000 are reporting less-favorable views of the economy. “This pattern is consistent with the ‘K-shaped’ recovery that economists are talking about, meaning economic conditions improve for well-educated, higher-skill, and higher-wage workers while hard times continue for the rest,” Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said in a release.
In Flagler County, the number of people with jobs grew by 363, but was offset by an almost equal growth of 322 people in the labor force–a labor force that remains 1,000 below its level a year ago, even though the county’s population has continued to grow by more than 1,500 people a year: the pandemic has not slowed an influx of people that ranked Flagler among the nation’s 100-fastest growing counties over the past 10 years, though the influx is made up disproportionately of older people already past working age.
Florida’s population is expected to grow by 1.83 percent in 2020 and 1.38 percent next year, adding nearly 700,000 people, according to the latest estimate by the state’s Demographic Estimating Conference.
The state and local job figures include full and part-time work. For a person to be considered employed, that worker would have had to log as little as a single hour in a two-week period.
The unemployment rate is in certain ways deceptive, especially in Florida, where qualifying for unemployment benefits is a much more draconian process than in most states, and where eligibility for benefits usually ends at 12 weeks, also one of the shorter periods in the nation, though there’s a caveat (see below). Once a person does not comply with state rules, such as proving that the person is looking for work, the person is no longer included in unemployment figures. The state–and counties–in other words, artificially keep the unemployment rate lower than it is. The federal government’s U-6, or alternative, unemployment rate, accounts for some of that discrepancy, and is therefore a more accurate picture of the true unemployment rate. That rate in the third quarter of 2020 was 12.8 percent in Florida, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics–almost double the state’s official unemployment rate. BLS does not break down the number by counties.
The caveat: The state’s labor department on Friday reported Florida’s third-quarter jobless average at 8.6 percent. By law, that means unemployment benefits are extended by seven weeks, from 12 to 19 weeks. The 12-week limit is in effect as long as the unemployment rate is below 5 percent. An additional week is added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5 percent in the third quarter of a calendar year. But the benefit itself won’t change: it tops off at $275 a week.
The unemployment rate also stalled in Volusia County, holding at 5.9 percent in October, and in St. Johns County, where it dropped by a decimal point. Both St. Johns’ and Volusia’s labor forces also grew slightly, suggesting that, as in Flagler, the job gains are largely a restoration of jobs lost during the pandemic. The slower recovery may also be reflecting a reality labor force analysis have seen across the country: many jobs will not be returning as the post-covid economy restructures.
As in summer, when job recovery numbers stalled, the slowdown appears directly proportional to the third Covid-19 wave, now cascading south from the rest of the country and across Florida, including in Flagler, which has seen covid cases exceed 100 for five successive weeks, and is this week seing its worst week since summer: 155 cases in the past seven days. Florida added 9,000 cases in each of the last two days, also reflecting numbers not seen since last summer. But the spike was predicted by public health experts: Gov. Ron DeSantis in September lifted all restrictions on businesses and forbade local governments from imposing such things as mask mandates, in essence inviting a surge–as he did in summer, when he lifted a slew of restrictions ahead of Memorial Day–and, in essence, crippling the economy again, at least from consumer’s perspectives.
“Overall, Floridians are more pessimistic in October than September, and one of the sources of the pessimism is Floridians’ opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket item, a potentially negative sign for retailers during the holiday shopping season. This question of the index reached its lowest level in record in April, when it tumbled 60.5 points with respect to February. It has since bottomed out but has only recovered to about half of the levels recorded before the pandemic started,” Sandoval said.
The leisure and hospitality industry continues to struggle in the state, though it added nearly 30,000 jobs in October. The sector is still nearly 200,000 jobs short of where it was a year ago, with hotels , bars and restaurants paying the heaviest price. Among the sectors adding jobs in October: retail and wholesale trade (8,600 jobs), finance and insurance (1,600), professional and technical services (4,900), a sector that has actually added 2,500 jobs compared with a year ago in a reflection of its adaptability: people in the sector tend to be able to work away from brick and mortar offices. Other than government, sectors losing jobs include health care and social assistance (3,000), real estate, rental and leasing (1,100), and transportation and warehousing (2,600). Construction added 2,900 jobs but is still 10,500 jobs below the level of a year ago. Manufacturing added 4,400 jobs and is 4,900 jobs below year-ago levels.
At European Village in Palm Coast, the notice Farley’s Irish Pub posted on Nov. 4 is emblematic of the pandemic’s continuing economic ravages: “ To All of Our Customers & Friends, Due to circumstances beyond our control further compounded by the impact of Covid-19, at this time we unfortunately have no choice but to close our doors after serving the community for the past 15 years. We have had some great memories together and we will miss you all dearly. Slainte!“
The full October 2020 unemployment report is below.