Southwest Florida continues to add jobs to the ones lost as a side effect of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The five-county region of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties has added 473,700 jobs from a year ago. That means the jobs lost number has fallen from almost half a million to 23,000, according to the January employment report released Monday by Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity.
Southwest Florida construction jobs climbed by 1,900 from a year ago, according to the data analyzed from the state report by CareerSource Southwest Florida.
“Looking at the numbers, we have reached what we consider full employment, which is between 4 and 5%,” said Janeth Castrejon, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida. “We are kind of leading the way on this number. What’s the best indicator is the year-to-year comparison instead of month-to-month.”
Before the pandemic, Southwest Florida had an unemployment rate of 3.6%. By April 2020, unemployment soared to 14.2%.
“Everything came to a halt,” Castrejon said. “That’s when we began to see an economic decline in Southwest Florida and the entire nation.”
Since then, Florida and the region have seen steady climbs in workers returning to work.
Florida has gained almost 700,000 jobs of the 1.2 million it lost from the pandemic, according to the report.
January jobs were 571,800 down from January 2020, but the state unemployment rate of 4.8% was lower than the national rate of 6.3%.
The unemployment rates matched or beat the state rate in Charlotte (4.8% from 4.1% a year ago), Collier (3.9% from 3.4%) Glades (4.4% from 3.2%) and Lee (4.6% from 3.5%) counties, the report said. Only in Hendry County (5.4 from 5.9%) were the percentages higher than the state average.
“I took a look at the unemployment rate for the region, and there are a couple of things that caught my eye,” said Amir Neto, assistant professor of economics at FGCU. “It’s lower than for Florida. The only one that is higher is Hendry right now. The positive side, is if you look at the unemployment rate. One of the stories of the pandemic is how it has driven people out of the workforce. They are not looking for jobs for several reasons. We shut down schools. That meant parents had to stay home to take care of their kids who were schooling at home.”
Neto saw encouraging trends comparing December 2020 to January 2021 as well.
The five-county region added about 7,500 workers from month to month. That number probably could have been more without the continued presence of the pandemic, Neto said.
“There are people who cannot afford to get any job, because they need to stay at home and take care of children, the elderly or people with health issues,” Neto said. “To try and not get the disease. There are other people who are reevaluating their situation. All of these trends are playing a role right now.”
All ten job categories were down from a year ago, but none more so than the tourism and hospitality sector. Labeled “Leisure,” jobs were down by 22% across the state, a loss of 284,100 jobs.
The tourism and hospitality sector lost about 13,200 jobs in Southwest Florida from a year ago, the report said.
Some restaurant owners are reporting difficulties in filling jobs as the restaurants bounce back.
“We’re just having a hard time finding people who want to work,” said Jay Johnson, owner of Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral and the Lee chapter president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
“I’m hearing that not only on the restaurant side. I’m hearing that on the hotel side. While we’re not fully back as an industry, I think we’re coming back.”
Johnson typically has 38 employees at this time of year. He’s back up to 35 and looking for two more but having trouble filling the spots.
As for the hotel side, “occupancy is slowly creeping up,” Johnson said. “We’re still missing our conventions and our corporate travel. We still have hotels that are not anywhere near where they were pre-pandemic. It’s truly a mixed bag. Parts of the industry are coming back, and they’re having trouble finding employees.”
New hotels have opened across the region, notably the Luminary in downtown Fort Myers, which makes competition for hotel jobs fierce.
“That is making it more difficult to find more people,” Johnson said. “That’s making for a shortfall.”
Air travel at Southwest Florida International Airport continues to inch up, rising by 5.9% in January 2021 from December 2020. But the 686,000 passengers in January were 39% lower than one year prior and the lowest January total since 2005. That’s fewer visitors to feed in restaurants and lodge in hotels.
The next year will be one to watch. Which of the trends that began with the coronavirus pandemic will stick? Those are questions that might be answered with the January 2022 jobs report, Castrejon and Neto each said.
“We are still morphing,” Castrejon said.