Flagler County’s January unemployment rate rose back to to 5.1 percent after a sharp fall in December 2o 3.9 percent, when the local unemployment rate was nearly back to its pre-covid level. December aside, the 5.1 percent mark remains below where the rate had been in the past few months as the county and the state have navigated the covid economy.
Florida’s rate fell to 4.8 percent, the best showing since March 2020 when it had risen to 4.3 percent and was on a sharp upswing as stores and businesses were scaling back or shutting down with covid’s first wave.
Flagler County’s job profile was not at all as much of a retreat as the numbers indicate at first. It isn’t just who’s unemployed, but whao’s working. So while 595 more Flagler residents qualified for unemployment in January, an unusually sharp one-month rise in part reflecting retail’s post-holiday layoffs (for a total of nearly 2,400 unemployed), almost 200 more people were employed in January than in December.
The labor force grew by 788, a strong indication of confidence in the economy as more workers were willing to rejoin the workforce, and, to a lesser extent, more working-age people were willing to move into the county. (Flagler has not had a problem attracting new residents month after month, but the majority have been older people out of the workforce. Last week a Wall Street Journal article’s headline summed up the current situation in the state: “Homebuyers Are Heading to Florida During Covid, but Nearly as Many Are Moving Out.”)
The labor force is still almost 1,400 workers short of where it stood a year ago, so the county has a distance to go to regain the momentum of pre-covid months. And February’s consumer confidence figures for the state were not encouraging: it plummeted to levels comparable to the early days of covid, according to an analysis by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
“Consumer sentiment in February is only nine-tenths of a point higher than April’s reading, the lowest level observed last year as a result of the economic damage brought by the pandemic,” said Hector H. Sandoval, who heads the monthly survey. “The drop in February wiped out almost all the gains since the index bottomed out in April.” He added: ““Overall, Floridians are pessimistic in February. The sizable drop in consumer confidence, particularly concerning future economic outlooks, signals uncertainty and a potential decline in discretionary spending in the months ahead which can slowdown the recovery.”
Nevertheless, first-time unemployment claims statewide continue to fall, and with the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill just passed and $1,400 in the pockets of most Americans–the overwhelming majority of Flagler residents qualified–the economy is expected to improve, not retreat.
Overall, Flagler County’s rate ranks it 21st best in the state, tied with Volusia, with St. Johns County leading the sate with the lowest unemployment rate, at 3.5 percent. St. Johns’ proximity helps Flagler since a large number of local residents work in the county next door.
The unemployment figures reflect job status according to residency, regardless of where the resident’s job may be, and the figures don’t distinguish between part-time and full-time work. To be considered employed, a worker would have had to log as little as an hour in the employment period. So the figures are not reflective of under-employment, nor of the part-time status of workers who could not find full-time work or whose hours were cut-back–the so-called involuntary part-time workers.
Florida also has one of the nation’s stingiest and most onerous unemployment systems, requiring workers to comply with strict job-searching requirements if they are to be counted as unemployed and receive a check. The requirements discourage many workers from looking, so they are not counted among the unemployed, thus artificially depressing the unemployment figure. The state does not calculate the true unemployment and under-employment figure that would include those categories.
The federal Labor Department does so quarterly, though currently BLS is showing only the results of its 2020 average rates for each states. When those discouraged workers are included, along with the those involuntary part-timers workers, Florida’s more accurate unemployment and underemployment rate–what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the alternative measure of labor utilization–stood at 14.3 percent for the 2020 average. The next quarterly report is due in April.
Adrienne Johnston, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s chief economist, said even as people return to the overall labor force, the need to revitalize the vital leisure and hospitality industry continues to be a focus.
“We’re continuing to see some job losses in the leisure and hospitality industry,” Johnston said in a conference call with reporters. “We know in January, there were some additional layoffs in the tourism industry related to some of the theme parks. And so that seems to be continuing to drive most of the job loss. We also saw some losses in professional business services as well in January.”
As of January, the leisure and hospitality industry had lost 284,100 jobs, or 22.3 percent of jobs, over the past year, according to the state agency.
Retail jobs were off 3.9 percent from a year earlier, and transportation, warehouse and utility jobs were down 5.0 percent. Also, education positions were down 3.3 percent, health care and social assistance jobs were off 4.2 percent, construction jobs fell 1.7 percent and manufacturing jobs were down 2.6 percent.
The report was released as more than 4.2 million people in Florida have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and the daily average of new coronavirus cases has been just over 4,500 a day the past week, the lowest daily average since a surge of cases started in early November.
–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida