unemployment.jpgTALLAHASSEE (AP) _ This is the kind of record no one likes to set: The lingering effects of the Great Recession pushed Florida's unemployment rate to a modern high last month, state labor officials reported Friday, March 26.

The February 2010 jobless rate of 12.2 percent was the highest since the state began keeping count in 1970. It topped the previous documented record of 11.9 percent in May 1975. And it exceeded the national average of 9.7 percent in February.

Florida's army of the jobless now numbers more than 1.1 million people, according to the state's Agency of Workforce Innovation. Nearly 900,000 jobs have evaporated since the peak of the business cycle in March 2007, including more than 211,000 jobs during the past year alone.

Worse, when analysts add into the statistics those who have given up looking for work or who are involuntarily working only part time, the state's unemployment rate now stands at 20.2 percent _ one of every five Floridians in the work force.

“This is the highest unemployment rate on record since the series started,'' said Rebecca Rust, chief economist for the Agency for Workforce Innovation, which serves as Florida's labor department. “Though we know there were higher unemployment rates during the Depression, we don't have statistics that go back that far.''

Still, experts said the bottom of the employment cycle might be in place or at least in sight. They noted that other elements of the economy are recovering and that February's unemployment rate is just a tad below state economists' predictions of a worst-case 12.3 percent.

In fact, Friday's report showed a modest gain of 26,300 jobs, the first improvement in more than two years. But growth in the work force and other technical factors accounted for the higher unemployment percentage, and the crisis obviously is not over.

“One month is certainly not a trend,'' Rust said. “Generally, we like to see a directional change for four months in a row.''

Hoping to jump start rehiring or at least prevent further job losses, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist combined on March 2 _ the first day of the 2010 legislative session _ to delay a scheduled increase in the unemployment compensation tax. Many employers had complained that the higher tax would compel them to fire more workers rather than shoulder the per-worker cost.

Another ray of hope comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which next week will hire up to 63,700 Floridians as temporary workers.

But for many Floridians, the current situation and the immediate outlook remain grim.

Once again, Florida's construction industry is in the worst shape. More than 73,600 construction jobs have disappeared in the past year, a 17.1 percent decline. Other hard-hit industries included trade, transportation and utilities; tourism and hospitality; and manufacturing.

The only sectors showing job growth were private education and health services.

Flagler County, along the Atlantic Coast south of St. Augustine, had the highest unemployment rate in February _ 17 percent. Liberty County, a sparsely populated area west of Tallahassee and home to a state prison, had the lowest unemployment rate _ 7.5 percent.

Analysts said high-unemployment counties tended to depend on construction, manufacturing and financial services, while low-unemployment counties tended to depend on government-related jobs.

Also Friday, analysts revised the state's January unemployment rate, bumping it up slightly to 12 percent. That means Florida also set a modern record in that month, though no one knew it.

With the Legislature in session and a busy election season already under way, politicians reacted swiftly to the report.

Marco Rubio, who is challenging Crist for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, again criticized the federal stimulus program.

“More than a year ago, President Obama and Governor Crist stood before the people of Florida and sold their stimulus bill as necessary for job creation,'' Rubio said. “A year later, more jobs have been lost and today's report is just the latest indication that the Crist-Obama stimulus has failed Floridians.''

Rust said the stimulus program delivered an extra $729 million in unemployment compensation to Floridians, and many economists believe the stimulus program kept the U.S. economy from falling into an even deeper recession.

Crist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, Florida's attorney general, also rebuked the Obama administration.

“President Obama's failed tax-and-spend economic agenda has left Florida with the state's highest unemployment rate ever,'' McCollum said.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., also a candidate for U.S. Senate, said Floridians already know “that our state is hurting.''

“Other states are beginning their economic recovery, but Florida is lagging behind,'' Meek said.