Ending federal benefits was supposed to lower Florida’s unemployment but that didn’t happen, data shows

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Governor Ron DeSantis ended Federal pandemic unemployment assistance early in June in order to get Florida back to work. But newly released data from the Department of Economic Opportunity shows unemployment has actually increased since the benefits ended.

Meanwhile, Floridians are still struggling to make ends meet throughout new COVID-19 spikes.

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It’s been a rough 18 months for Dustin Adams.

The master electrician had risen to some of the highest levels in his trade. He’s the local president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada. And for nearly 30 years, he’s been the house electrician at Ruth Eckerd Hall, one of the Tampa Bay region’s premier performing arts venues.

“I have a great skill set,” Adams said. “I can walk into any theater in the world and make stuff work.”

Then COVID hit. And his industry, like much of the world, just kind of shut down.

“It changes when I’m gonna retire,” Adams said. “Because now my retirement is almost completely wiped out. I just turned 50. I had a little sun on the horizon in 15 years. But now that sun on the horizon is gonna be a lot further away.”

Leading from the bottom

At a max of $275-per-week, Florida already had some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country. Under Donald Trump, Americans temporarily got a $600-a-week federal boost. President Joe Biden reduced that to $300 in his stimulus package. It was supposed to be a lifeline to the millions of Americans whose lives and careers were put on hold.

But as the economy opened back up, many employers, especially in the hospitality industry, said they couldn’t hire anyone because the workforce was stuck at home living off of stimulus checks and beefed-up unemployment.

According to DEO chief economist Adrienne Johnston, the hiring shortage was felt everywhere.

“Every job, category, class, sector is experiencing some level of tension in the labor market,” Johnston said.

So in late June, DeSantis followed other mostly GOP-led states and ended federal enhancements early. It was meant to incentivize Floridians to work. But Florida’s unemployment numbers for July show ending assistance didn’t do that.

June’s rate, with the federal enhancement, was 5 percent. July’s rate grew to 5.1 percent.

“We experienced a significant event last year where there was a major disruption to the labor market,” Johnston said. “And while the recovery has been relatively quick compared to that event and compared to previous recessions, it does take time for employers and employees to connect back in the labor market.”

Digging into the data

According to analysis by Indeed’s lead economist Jed Kolko, employment grew slightly more – about .1 percentage point – and unemployment fell, in states that kept federal benefits. The same holds when the data is whittled down to industries like leisure and hospitality, which account for a large portion of Florida’s workforce.

Job growth there was also better in benefit-keeping states.

Rich Templin is the director of politics and public policy for the Florida AFL-CIO.

“This is a multi-faceted nuisance problem,” he said. “There are so many reasons that these workers aren’t going back to these low-paying service sector jobs.”

Templin said many found work outside of hospitality, like delivering for Amazon or meal services and creating content online.

“The economy changed during the pandemic,” Templin said.

It’s not over

Templin and Adams agreed, another reason for the shortage is that the pandemic isn’t over. The delta variant of COVID-19 has led to spikes in hospitalizations and daily cases that are eclipsing last year’s records. And with the Governor’s reluctance to mandate masks or other mitigation efforts, Adams fears it could get worse. Especially in the live entertainment industry.

“They have to come back regularly,” he said. “The artists have to feel safe, the buildings have to feel safe, the audience has to feel safe.”

The delta spike has led to the canellation of numerous concert tours across all genres. Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, Stevie Nicks, Garth Brooks, BTS and many more have begun to cancel whole tours or stops in states that don’t enforce mitigation.

And for high-skilled employment – like being the head electrician at a major performing arts center – it’s not as simple as walking into a restaurant and throwing on an apron. Adams said many of the members and non-members he spoke to over the past 18 months can hardly even get those jobs.

With the federal enhancement set to expire next month, Adams said lives are still on the line.

“We need to stop making politics of unemployment, “he said. “This is not a bunch of people sitting at home doing nothing. It’s a bunch of people who are worried about losing everything.”

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