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The Search For Florida's Workers, And DeSantis Moves During Pride Month, Ahead Of Pulse Remembrance

Envelopes addressed from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Surfside, Fla. Through April 2021, Florida has regained about half the number of jobs lost in March and April of 2020. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Florida’s economy keeps adding jobs, but many companies say they’re struggling to find workers. Plus, one of the state's first LGBTQ lawmakers says it's "hard to watch the actions of this governor" during Pride month.

Florida’s economy has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic induced recession. So says a new economic analysis by Moody’s Analytics. But the pandemic is still here and hundreds of thousands of jobs have not returned.

Only about half the jobs lost in the first two months of the pandemic have returned. Tens of thousands of working Floridians have dropped out of the workforce. They’ve gone back to school, can’t work because they are taking care of children or a family member, or maybe they’ve just become frustrated with the kinds of jobs available and have decided to sit it out for the time being.

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Some jobs in retail stores, restaurants, bars and hotels have returned, but many businesses report having a tough time finding enough people to fill all the shifts. Health concerns and low pay could be keeping people from returning to the job market.

"I think the recovery is far from complete," said Hector Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "We still predict that that tourism is going to be one of the main drivers of economic activity in Florida. But the issue is that the U.S. still remains closed to most international visitors."

Out-of-work Floridians collecting unemployment will see a pay cut in two weeks. Florida is one of the states ending the $300 a week federal unemployment boost payments early. It will cut unemployment checks by more than half. The maximum state unemployment check is $275 a week.

Sandoval thinks the change will "push some people" to re-enter the job market. However, he does not think the extra unemployment payments have been a driving factor for most of those who have dropped out of the labor pool.

"Maybe some of them have health issues related to COVID or they are waiting to have child care," he said. "And that may also explain some of these frictions that we've seen in the labor market."

Several listeners shared their stories of pandemic employment:

I work in the performing arts industry and we were hit hardest, hit very hard, by the pandemic. The numbers still don't allow us to get back to full business. We're optimistic that in the coming months we will. But for the time being, we still have a lot of people with highly specialized skills that that are out of work because we can't get back yet. And so I do think it's premature for the state to end the additional federal benefits there.
C.J in Tampa
I'm in the entertainment business. I'm a lifelong musician and my gigs haven't come back. I think I have to have one [gig] in October, but I was looking forward to the help through September, basically to 10 weeks that have been taken away for myself and everyone else. That's a loss of $3000. In my case, that's two months rent.
Dave in Lakeland

I have worked on and off in the service industry, restaurant catering, and I am also in show business. I feel like it's really unfair to pull that [additional federal] unemployment from the entertainment industry and people that work so hard in the service industry. They're just getting a bad rap about, 'Oh, they're all just staying home because they want the money.' That is not true. There may be some, but that is not the big picture. Everybody wants to get back to work and be paid fairly.
Sally in New Smyrna Beach

More than 10,000 hospitality jobs were added in Florida in April. The demand for restaurant workers is "excessive," according to Lauren Titus, executive editor of Edible Northeast Florida.

"It was a challenging work force market before the pandemic and the pandemic has really shed a light on some of the challenges in the hospitality industry, and seen the lack of qualified workers to some of the working conditions that the employees have to live in normal times," she said.

Compared to February 2020, the month before the first COVID cases were confirmed in Florida, there are 258,000 fewer people counted as interested and available to work. That's a 2.5% reduction in the state's labor force. Some hospitality companies are raising wages to attract workers. Universal Orlando and Chipotle have boosted starting pay to $15 an hour.

"Restaurants are finding that they have to get to that $15 an hour rate just for people to come in for an interview. [This] is challenging for restaurants because the margins are so thin to begin with. To have to pay more for your workers and the increase in cost of food and other supplies — it's really highlighting even more the challenges in the hospitality industry that we as diners take for granted," Titus said.

Pride Month, Pulse and Politics

Gov. Ron DeSantis' office insists it was not involved in decisions to keep rainbow lights off some state bridges. The lighting schemes are to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride month, a recognition of queer rights.

The Acosta Bridge in downtown Jacksonville was lit up in rainbow lights earlier this week, but then the state’s Department of Transportation ordered the lights to be turned off. The explanation was that the colors were out of compliance. However, News4Jax found emails from a regional FDOT official citing "several complaints regarding the color scheme." The agency said it ordered the regular lighting scheme after receiving five complaints about the rainbow colors. Officials in two other Florida counties asked for permission to light up their bridges for Pride Month, but were told “no.”

Still, after the backlash of turning off the display, the Pride lights over the Jacksonville bridge were turned back on. That led Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody to ask the state to reconsider its rejection of a similar lighting scheme on that city's John Ringling Causeway Bridge.

"Apparently they are discussing it. So that's encouraging. I'm optimistic," he said. "I hope that we'll be able to get the bridge lit up for the end of Pride month, but especially for the Pulse nightclub shooting memorials that we have throughout the city tomorrow."

Saturday marks five years since a gunman opened fire at the nightclub in Orlando killing 49 people. The remembrance comes two weeks after DeSantis vetoed $150,000 of state funding for mental health services for Pulse survivors and after he signed into law a ban on transgender student athletes.

"It's hard to watch the actions of this governor over the last two weeks and not see intentionality and not see politics," said Equality Florida senior political director Joe Saunders. He was one of the first two LGBTQ state lawmakers when he was elected to the House in 2012. He served one term before losing his re-election bid in 2014.

"It's hard to see [the governor's actions] as anything other than a direct attack that plays to a really specific base of people who just don't believe that LGBTQ people exist in the state."

A spokesperson for the governor said the budget signed by the governor included $212 million more for community mental health. The governor has denied the timing of his signing the ban on transgender student athletes on the first day of Pride month was symbolic.

"I think disingenuousness is really on the the nose word for the moment that we're living in," Saunders said. "What we see over and over again from this governor is is the fanning the flames of culture wars."

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.