ORLANDO, Fla. — As Florida state leaders paint a bright picture about the jobs market, they also caution that there is a long road to go.

What You Need To Know

  • DEO says jobs are returning in the state

  • The agency says the unemployment rate remains at 4.7%

  • This comes as Gov. DeSantis opposes increasing unemployment benefits

​Gov. Ron DeSantis is using the spin of added jobs to further reject efforts — by both Republican and Democratic members of the Florida Legislature — to expand state unemployment benefits.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported Friday the state gained 32,900 private sector jobs in March 2021, totaling 777,600 private sector jobs from April 2020 to March 2021.

Adrienne Johnston, Florida DEO’s chief economist, said the numbers include both new jobs created and people being called back to work.

Florida DEO reported the state’s latest unemployment rate remains steady at 4.7%, compared to 14.3% in April 2020 when Florida was in the heights of the pandemic.

“We are seeing continued job growth over the month,” Johnston said Friday. “When you look back at the level we were at the same time last year, where we have been gaining jobs for 11 months, we’re not quite back to where we were prior to the pandemic, where we were at the lowest levels of unemployment we had seen, highest level of employment we had ever seen, we’re just not quite back there and largely that’s due to leisure and hospitality industry not quite getting back to where we were.”

Tourism is an anchor of Central Florida’s economy where the Orlando region unemployment rate is 5.4%. Osceola County continues to have the highest unemployment rate in the state.

“My take away, and what we’re seeing in the data, we are continuing to see job growth, so businesses are adding jobs back across the state, across industries and it’s not coming back as we had a huge decline early last year, it’s going to take time for that to grow and get back to pre-pandemic levels,” Johnston said.

While thousands remain out of work, there is emerging optimism.

Businesses and restaurants across Central Florida are posting jobs, with some reporting difficulty in hiring staff.

Some job seekers have expressed concern related to health and wages for their slow return to the workforce.

Others, however are eager to get back to normal.

“I can tell you in the next month or two, Disney is going to have to start hiring externally, off the street to fill those roles because each week there’s a need for more people to return,” Eric Clinton said.

Clinton is president of Unite Here 362, which represents 9,000 workers in the region, including Disney cast members (Disney’s term for employees) working in attractions, custodial, vacation planning, and at the auto plaza.

Unite Here 362 and 737 are members of the Services Trades Council Union — a group of six collective unions representing more than 42,000 Disney cast members.

Clinton said of the 42,000 cast members, more than 32,000 have returned to work.

Those waiting to return, Clinton said, are primarily part-time employees or those who work at properties waiting to reopen.

“The parks are open and they are busy,” Clinton said. “The difference is, while the parks are busy…there are whole entire resorts, big campuses of thousands of hotel rooms that are not open. Connected to each of those hotels and campuses of rooms are food and beverage operations, entertainment offerings, and gift shops, and housekeepers who have not been brought back to work, so until hotel occupancy goes up, that’s really the next thing we’ll see, people getting rooms staying in those rooms, and doing so for several nights.”

Representatives for Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld have all ignored repeated questions in the past several weeks from Spectrum News regarding workforce numbers.

The brightening of job prospects comes when many are still struggling to find adequate work and battling the state’s broken unemployment system.

Neither DEO Executive Dane Eagle nor DeSantis remarked at a Friday press conference in Lakeland on the ongoing problems plaguing the system. Many Floridians say they have been locked out of their accounts and are finding erroneous holds on their claims.

Some have not received benefits in months.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said it is aware of the glitches and continues to work as quickly as possible to fix the problems.

Struggling to Reform Unemployment

In March, at the start of the 2021 Legislative Session, DEO executive director Dane Eagle told Spectrum News that his agency was understaffed, overworked, and in need of legislative assistance to make the fixes happen.

“You have thousands of Floridians who struggled getting into the system, into the CONNECT system,” said Chris Sprowles (R), Florida’s Speaker of the House. “We have a bill moving and a budgeting process, we’ve been working with Director Eagle at DEO to make sure the revamp of the CONNECT system has enough bandwidth if you will to make sure if we end up in this situation again, if there’s a large amount of Floridians who are trying to get on, we have a system that supports that.”

There is bipartisan traction to provide funding to address the technical pitfalls of the system. There is also bipartisan support – though not a majority – to provide marginal increases in unemployment benefits.

Florida currently has some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation: $275 per week, capped at 12 weeks.

While Democrats came into session pushing for $500 per week for a new cap of 26 weeks, a more modest proposal is gaining some support.

State Senator Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) is proposing a $100 increase to $375 per week for a new cap of 14 weeks. Brodeur’s bill, SB 1906, breezed through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday and now heads to a vote before the full chamber, where it recently secured the support of Senate Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne).

DeSantis Friday, however, balked at increasing benefits.

Also, the Florida House of Representatives has advanced no companion bill to Brodeur’s Senate bill. Given the lack of support from DeSantis and the GOP-controlled House, Brodeur’s legislation faces a hefty climb to become law.

DeSantis said he did not support providing additional benefits considering the improving jobs market in the state. State benefits are paid out from the Florida Unemployment Trust Fund. Business pay unemployment insurance taxes to fuel the fund, which is nearly depletion after the pandemic.

In an effort to replenish the fund, and Republicans argue save the burden of increasing taxes from businesses, the legislature recently passed a long standing Democratic proposal to expand the collection of online sales tax. 

Instead of using the funds for Democratic-focused programs and priorities, Republicans signed off on the move after time of rejection but to funnel the money instead to temporarily fund the unemployment trust fund.