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Florida’s Jobless Rate Jumps, Ending Three-Month Turnaround

Florida’s unemployment rate hit 11.5 percent in July, ending three straight months of decline even as annual job growth showed its first gain since 2007, state officials reported Friday.

With the economy widely seen as weakening again nationally, Florida was among 14 states where unemployment inched upward last month. Florida’s 11.5 percent jobless rate – up 0.1 percent from June – remains well above the national 9.5 percent unemployment level.

Slightly more than 1 million Floridians are out-of-work, the Agency for Workforce Innovation reported.

“As always is true in the trough of a recession, we get mixed messages,” said Rebecca Rust, AWI’s chief economist.

Even as unemployment climbed, the number of existing jobs in Florida showed its first annual increase since June 2007. The 7.2 million jobs in the state represented a boost of 2,700 jobs compared to a year earlier.

Florida’s job growth is better than what’s been seen nationally, with 52,000 jobs lost over the past year. Last month also was the first time since the recession kicked-in three years ago that Florida’s job growth levels surpassed those nationally.

But the jobless uptick in Florida could prove just the beginning.

The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits reached the half-million mark for the first time since November. It was the third straight week that first-time jobless claims jumped as the housing sector continues to slump and federal stimulus spending on many public works projects winds down.

In Florida, construction has shed 27,500 jobs in the past year, the financial services industry lost 18,600 jobs and information services another 9,400 positions to lead the state’s job losses. Hendry County’s 19.7 percent unemployment was the state’s highest jobless rate in July, while Walton County, where the tourist industry has been buffeted by the Gulf oil spill, managed to claim the state’s lowest level – 7.5 percent, state officials found.

In Walton County, where tourist officials complain about a downturn sparked by the Gulf oil spill, employment apparently remains strong. Similarly, nearby Okaloosa County reported a modest 7.9 percent jobless rate – with Rust saying statistics indicate the hospitality industry has maintained hiring levels. Beach cleanup jobs also have been added in many Panhandle counties, although those positions are now being scaled-back.

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said Friday it’s unlikely the country will slip into a second recession. But he projects growth will be slower through the first half of 2011 unless the federal government begins to focus on creating rather than saving jobs.

Snaith said the latest climb in jobless claims and Florida’s unemployment rate reflects widespread uncertainty over the financial effects of the federal health care overhaul and what may happen to federal stimulus efforts and tax cuts facing possible reinstatement.

“The mystique surrounding the recovery may have had companies on the fence about laying off employees, but the underlying weakness of this recovery has finally been realized,” he said.

State economists last month projected that Florida’s economy has hit bottom but appears likely to continue scraping along as the development industry and housing market still represents an anchor dragging down the state’s economy. With construction dried up, the state also has been staggered by what economists said was roughly 50,000 foreclosures a month combined with tightening credit markets.

Until last month, unemployment had been improving after hitting a 12.3 percent peak jobless rate in March. The federal government, health care industry, and membership associations and organizations continue to report increased hiring but construction, manufacturing, and financial and information services continue to shed positions.

“Even though we’ve had a loss of momentum over the past couple of months, the consensus for most forecasters is that this is a lull, but it won’t be a double-dip recession,” Rust said.

Indeed, there are some signs of life. State forecasters earlier this month increased the forecast of anticipated tax collections by $229 million for the current budget year – and another $260 million for next year, as stronger than expected corporate tax collections reflected rising profits and higher hospital fee collections offset still-slumping real estate revenue.

In Friday’s findings, AWI officials also pointed out that eight metropolitan areas in Florida have seen over-the-year job gains, including Gainesville, Bradenton-Sarasota, Pensacola and Tallahassee.

But the state’s biggest urban areas are still suffering job losses compared to last year. Among them: Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale.

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