Officials: Fla. unemployment worsens in December


Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 6:00 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. A weak December in the retail sector of Florida's skittish economy contributed to the state's highest unemployment rate in more than 16 years, the state's labor agency reported Friday.

And the worst is yet to come, the Legislature's chief economist predicted Friday.

"At this pace, if nothing changed, you could be looking at a 10 percent unemployment rate by summer," economist Amy Baker said. "The pace of job losses and unemployed has quickened much more than we anticipated."

With another 72,000 Florida workers joining the ranks of unemployed in December, 8.1 percent of the state's eligible workforce were without jobs, the highest rate since September 1992. Florida's unemployment figure was well above last month's revised 7.4 percent jobless rate and nearly a full percentage point above the national average of 7.2 percent.

California, the nation's most populated state, reported an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

With 752,000 people now on Florida's jobless rolls, roughly one of every 14 eligible workers is on the street without a paycheck. More than 255,000 workers lost jobs in Florida since December 2007, including more than 88,000 in the construction industry alone.

"I've gone to the point that I'm telling myself 'I'll do anything," said Neyda Zibilich, a former director at the Florida Grand Opera who has been unemployed for three months.

Zibilich said she used to visit the South Florida Workforce office in Miami three or four days each week to use the internet and printers, but has cut back to just one day because of the growing crowds of jobless at the office.

"It's getting incredibly hard to find a job," she said.

The metropolitan Miami-Fort Lauderdale area have seen 69,500 jobs disappear over the past year. The Tampa Bay and Orlando areas have been hard hit too, losing 53,500 jobs.

Flagler County in northeast Florida, especially hard hit by the construction dropoff, reported the highest percentage of people out of work with an 11.7 percent unemployment rate.

The job losses further exacerbate the state's budget woes because they mean more money will be needed for unemployment and medicaid benefits besides assistance for needy families. Florida relies heavily on sales tax and dock stamp collections for much of its general revenue, leaving the state highly vulnerable to economic downturns.

State officials are hoping for help from the federal government.

"The stimulus plan that's being worked on in Washington is designed to try and slow down the pace of unemployment and job losses," Baker said.

Monesia Brown, who is leaving Feb. 1 as director at the Agency for Workforce Innovation, said Friday the agency is continuing to pursue federal help to create more jobs.

Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded lawmakers earlier this month to approve a $10 million economic stimulus plan to help small businesses and AWI has scheduled job fairs across the state to try to match workers with possible employment opportunities.

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