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Palm Beach County jobless rate jumped in January as more sought work

Palm Beach County’s jobless rate jumped in January as the number of official workers swelled, a trend economists interpret as a sign of health rather than weakness.

The county’s unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in January, Florida’s labor department said Monday. That’s up from 4.6 percent in December and 4.8 percent a year ago.

More than 721,000 Palm Beach County residents were counted in the county’s formal labor market in January, up from less than 700,000 in January 2016.

So even though more people are working, unemployment rose to its highest level since last summer.

“We did see an increase in the unemployment rate, but not for bad reasons,” said Mekael Teshome, PNC Bank’s Florida economist. “It signals that there’s confidence in the economic outlook. Workers feel like if they were to go looking for a job, they’d be able to find one.”

Florida saw a similar trend. The seasonally adjusted unemployment of 5 percent in January was unchanged from a year ago, primarily because some 250,000 new workers joined the official labor force in that time.

Meanwhile, Palm Beach County’s 2.8 percent pace of job growth over the past year continued to trail the state’s growth rate of 3.2 percent, but by a narrower margin than in past months.

Among Palm Beach County industries, the biggest gain over the past year came in the low-paying leisure and hospitality industry, which added 4,100 jobs since January 2016. Other sectors adding jobs were education and health services, which grew by 3,400 positions, and construction, which added 3,100 jobs.

Palm Beach County construction employment rose by nearly 10 percent over the past year, reversing a trend of tepid gains in that industry. The building sector had been hampered by levels of home construction that are low compared to pre-recession levels.

Meanwhile, Florida continues to lead large states in job growth, the U.S. Labor Department said Monday. Its 3.4 percent seasonally adjusted pace of job growth ranked well ahead of California’s 2 percent, Texas’ 1.9 percent and New York’s 1.5 percent.

Florida’s labor market has excelled in large part because it of increased tourism and a return to population growth. In other words, Teshome said, Florida’s boom-and-bust economy remains in boom mode.

“We really have put the Great Recession behind us,” Teshome said. “For 2017, the story is that we’re getting back to normal.”

For Palm Beach County workers, however, the economic signals have been mixed. The county’s average weekly wage rose to $973 in the third quarter of 2016, a 5 percent increase from the third quarter of 2015, according to a survey released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The national average for wage growth was 5.4 percent. Palm Beach County rated a subpar 215th among the nation’s 345 largest counties.

Palm Beach County, long the highest-wage county in Florida, was passed by Hillsborough County and Miami-Dade County.

It’s unclear exactly why Palm Beach County wages have weakened, although Palm Beach County’s job growth lagged Florida’s for much of 2016.

Among Florida’s 67 counties, unemployment ranged from a low of 3.5 percent in Monroe County to a high of 8.1 percent in Hendry County.

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