By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — First-time unemployment claims in Florida rolled in last month at a pace similar to the period before the coronavirus pandemic pounded the economy.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimated 3,982 unemployment claims were filed in Florida during the holiday-shortened week that ended Dec. 25.
If unchanged, the estimate would be the fewest number of claims for a single week since another holiday-shortened week in late December 2019 and would put the average of new claims over the past four weeks at 5,347.
In the four weeks prior to March 15, 2020, the date state and federal agencies use to mark the start of the pandemic in terms of jobless claims, the weekly average was 5,367.
The state saw first-time claims spike to 74,313 during the week that ended March 21, 2020, with the number peaking at 506,670 in the week ending April 18, 2020, as more than 1.4 million Floridians were put out of work.
The pace of claims eased during the past year, as the economy was pumped with rounds of massive federal stimulus money and free vaccinations became widely available.
As 2021 ended, state agencies also sent out a series of news releases crediting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to reopen the economy during the pandemic and pointing to such things as corporate expansions, restaurant openings and a rebound in the tourism industry.
“We have seen businesses expanding and relocating in droves — a trend we know will increase in the coming year,” Marc Adler, acting secretary of commerce at Enterprise Florida, said in a statement last week.
The latest state and national numbers about unemployment claims do not appear to show signs of an impact of the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Nationally, 198,000 first-time unemployment claims were filed during the week that ended Dec. 25, down 8,000 from the prior week. That put the national weekly average the past four weeks at 199,250, the lowest since Oct. 25, 1969.
For Florida, the estimate for the week that ended Dec. 25 was down from a revised count of 5,160 for the week ending Dec. 18. The Department of Labor initially projected 4,862 claims were filed during the week that ended Dec. 18. Initial weekly estimates have been revised upward each week since May 15.
State leaders in May ramped up efforts to get Floridians back into the workforce by withdrawing the state early from two federal assistance programs and reinstating a “work search” requirement for people seeking unemployment benefits.
Since then, the state has averaged 7,247 first-time claims a week, and the unemployment rate has fluctuated from a high of 5.1 percent in July to its November rate of 4.5 percent. The November rate reflected 483,000 out-of-work Floridians from a labor force of 10.63 million.
In the four weeks ending May 15, the weekly average of first-time unemployment claims had been 19,975.
Last week, the state Department of Economic Opportunity — which will release a December unemployment report on Jan. 21 — announced that improving numbers will lead to a reduction in the maximum length of unemployment benefits from 19 weeks to 12 weeks.
State law puts the maximum number of weeks at 12 when unemployment is at or below 5 percent, with an additional week added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5 percent in the third quarter of a calendar year. The number of weeks was pushed up to 19 in 2021 because of the surge in jobless claims after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state. The third-quarter 2020 unemployment rate was 8.6 percent.