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Where are Florida's workers and how are industries responding?

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An IHOP in Miami-Dade County advertises for workers on April 09, 2021. The South Florida unemployment continues falling, but the number of people rejoining the labor force lags.
Tom Hudson
An IHOP in Miami-Dade County advertises for workers on April 09, 2021. The South Florida unemployment continues falling, but the number of people rejoining the labor force lags.

Thousands of people have dropped out of the job market even as the economy continues rebounding. From hotels to health care, companies are looking to hire.

Fewer than 1,000 people rejoined South Florida's job market in September compared to a month earlier.

While tens of thousands of Floridians elsewhere in the state returned to work, or looking for work last month, the state's largest regional labor force is lagging — big time.

"Are these people who are out of the labor force going to come back?," asked Hector Sandoval, director of economic analysis at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

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It has been a slow return in South Florida. Even as the state was one of the first to reopen and remove restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COIVD-19, tens of thousands of people are sitting out the rebound. They haven’t rejoined the workforce, leaving a record high number of job openings and companies looking for workers for all kinds of jobs.

Florida's labor force has growth by 5.5% over the past year — a time marking when the pandemic recovery was well under way. The work force has increased only 3.3% in South Florida during that same time, according to state data.

Claudia DiGino has 18 job openings at the hotel where she is general manager — that's out of a full roster of 50.

"It's a lot for us," she said. "We are using some other resources like agencies where they send us people over who they can assist us with basic labor. However, it is continual training for these positions, so it becomes a little bit challenging."

Why potential workers have not returned to the job pool is as complex as the COVID-19 virus has proven to be.

One explanation is the reminder that the pandemic is still here. People may be concerned about health risks posed by certain jobs.

"I think people have recognized where they may be vulnerable and the roles that their employers actually play in dictating how safe they might be," said Dr. Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist with the University of Miami.

Even as infections have dropped, after spiking over the summer due to the delta variant, people may be caring for themselves or someone else with the virus. That caregiving, even if temporary, could keep someone from actively looking for work.

Then there is the role of money. Government stimulus checks and unemployment booster money may have helped increase savings.

"This cushion is actually helping them to kind of, like, be more picky about the jobs that are choosing," Sandoval said.

Florida ended the additional federal government unemployment payments earlier than some states, but Sandoval does not think that has spurred people to return to work.

"There is no evidence really showing that there is any impact of cutting the unemployment benefits is really pushing people to join the labor market," he said.

Sandoval also notes the sharp increase of new businesses formed from Floridians. Business applications jumped almost 27% in 2020, according to IRS Employer Identification Number data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Broward County led the way in South Florida with a 35% increase in new business applications.

"People are rethinking their priorities. If they were not treated well in their previous job, they are most likely looking for something different," Sandoval said.

Child care remains a challenge and big expense, too. Almost one in five child care workers in South Florida in May 2019 were no longer working in the industry one year later.

"There is a lack of affordable child care and this is mostly because this industry is facing a shortage of workers," Sandoval said.

That shortage particularly affects the ability of women to return to the workforce.

"There are differential responsibilities within the family unit around child rearing," said Bailey. "A lot of women are not going back to the workforce. I think women also are taking on a lot more eldercare."

Young Black women have experienced the deepest drop in workforce participation by falling nearly 50% from 2019 levels. Black women employment fell almost 10% compared to falling 7.5% for white women and down 6% for Hispanic women, according to government data.

"We've had essential work for a very long time, but we haven't put that value on it. In a sense, we've been discounting essential work. We have been discounting people who are at grocery stores, at food establishments, picking up our garbage, custodial staff, childcare, teachers," Bailey said.

There are fewer people working in health care in Florida now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. And no place is that more evident than in nursing homes. The number of people working at Florida nursing homes in September was down 13% compared to the end of 2019.

Nursing homes have been especially vulnerable to the virus — and that health risk has translated into an employment crisis according to Emmett Reed. He is the CEO of the Florida Health Care Association — the trade group for nursing homes.

"We are facing a major crisis in our staffing," he said. "We are getting to the point where many of our nursing homes are having to turn residents away because they don't have enough nurses to fulfill the hours needed."

Long term care facilities face certain regulations for minimum staffing levels. Some have raised hourly wages to compete with fast food jobs, according to Reed. That has meant bringing pay to to $20 an hour or more for a certified nursing assistant. In 2020, the median wage in Florida for a nursing home worker was below $15 an hour.

Some health care facilities use staffing agencies to fill the need. This temporary help can push operating costs much higher. A July survey of the industry, by the trade group, found more than half of Florida's operators are paying what they describe as unsustainable rates.

"Nursing homes are burning through every bit of cash reserves that they have for a rainy day. I mean, it's been raining for almost two years on us and it's unsustainable," said Reed.

The association is calling for higher reimbursement rates, particularly from Medicaid.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.