Jobless Claims Low, But Gas Prices Hit High

By Jim Turner

Florida continues to see unemployment claims roll in at a pre-pandemic pace as new data showed aspects of inflation possibly slowing.

But that trend has not been reflected at gas pumps, where the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Florida was $4.40 on Thursday — a record high, according to the AAA auto association.

The average price Thursday was 22 cents higher than a week earlier and topped the previous high of $4.38 a gallon on March 11, AAA said in information posted online.

“Gasoline futures soared to a new record high last week,” AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said in a statement Monday. “The increase is attributed to a combination of factors, including steady weekly declines in gasoline supplies and expectations that summer fuel demand will far outpace what we saw last year.”

AAA is projecting a surge in summer demand for travel. Though that could affect gas prices, it might be a good sign for Florida’s hospitality and leisure industry, which took a huge hit early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re hearing from travelers who are eager to return to a sense of normalcy, and it appears that time is finally here,” AAA Vice President of Travel Debbie Haas said in a prepared statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans have seized on inflation and high gas prices to criticize President Joe Biden’s economic policies.

“There’s not really an end in sight the way it’s going, and I’m very concerned about the energy this summer because the gas I’ve not seen it under $4 in Florida for unleaded in a long time,” DeSantis said Wednesday while in the Lafayette County town of Mayo.

“I am concerned about what would happen this summer as more people are driving because that’s just what happens every summer,” DeSantis later added.

DeSantis signed a bill last week that will suspend the state’s roughly 25-cent-a-gallon gas tax in October, one of two months historically with the lowest tourism counts. The Legislature approved the one-month break after agreeing to use $200 million in federal stimulus money to make up for lost gas-tax revenue, which goes toward transportation projects.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, issued an emergency rule Wednesday that allows the additional sale of gasoline containing 15 percent denatured anhydrous ethanol, or what is known as E15. The rule follows a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency temporary waiver approved this month related to E15, which is typically available in winter months.

While projected to cut the price of gas with E15 by about 10 cents a gallon, such fuel is offered at fewer than 200 of the more than 9,000 gas stations in Florida.

The U.S. Department of Labor released a report this week that said the consumer-price index was up 8.3 percent for the year, down from 8.5 percent in March. The downturn was the first in nine months, but the level remains near a 40-year high.

A separate report Thursday from the Labor Department estimated that 4,202 first-time jobless claims were filed last week in Florida.

That was down from a revised count of 5,221 claims for the week ending April 30 and put the average over the past four weeks to 5,083 claims. The numbers are similar to the rates of unemployment claims before COVID-19 caused massive job losses in 2020.

The Labor Department last week reported non-farm jobs nationally increased by 428,000 in April, with the national unemployment rate holding at 3.6 percent.

Florida’s jobless rate in March was 3.2 percent, reflecting an estimated 339,000 Floridians qualified as out of work from a labor force of 10.51 million. The state Department of Economic Opportunity will release an April report on May 20.

— News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.

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