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Rare drop in healthcare hiring brings Miami-Dade its slowest job growth in three years

Healthcare hiring didn’t come through for South Florida last month. The latest jobs number show one of the largest industries in the region has shifted into a new, slower gear, with Broward and Miami-Dade showing losses in a sector that was expanding even during the darkest days of the 2007-09 recession. It was a rare loss of healthcare jobs in the region, as the national Affordable Care Act roils the industry.

There’s a chance the reversal will be temporary, but the change helped hand Miami-Dade yet another weak employment report in 2013. While the unemployment rate backed off its flirtation with 10 percent, the internal numbers were discouraging. A survey of households found a slight drop in both employment and job seekers, a combination that allowed Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate to drop from 9.9 percent in March to 9.6 percent in April.

“The report should raise concerns,” Robert Cruz, chief economist for Miami-Dade County, said of the employment numbers released Friday morning. He called them “weak and disappointing,” adding: “The local labor market has made virtually no progress over the last 12 months.”

A separate survey of businesses found more bad news: Job growth in Miami-Dade hit the slowest pace since 2010, with only 2,200 new payroll positions added compared to the prior year.

In Broward, the numbers were much rosier: Employers added significantly more jobs (15,100) and unemployment dropped from 5.8 percent to 5.6 percent. (The two counties’ unemployment rates aren’t really comparable, since Miami-Dade’s is adjusted for seasonal changes in the economy. It is the only county in Florida large enough to get the extra analysis from the federal Labor Department on the day it releases local jobs reports. Broward will receive a seasonally adjusted rate later in the month.)

Statewide, Florida saw unemployment drop to its lowest level since September 2008. For April, the state saw unemployment of 7.2 percent, down from March’s 7.5 percent level. The drop came thanks to higher employment numbers, though the number of job seekers did drop slightly between March and April.

Healthcare also was a drag in Broward, recording a loss of 500 jobs. It was a modest drop but a major change: Broward’s healthcare industry had added jobs for 59 straight months, stretching back to June 2009. Miami-Dade’s healthcare industry saw a brief hiring decline at the close of 2011, ending a 137-month streak of job gains. Last year brought modest gains, and April’s decline was the first in 13 months.

The reversals in hiring come as the national healthcare law scrambles how providers get reimbursed and how insurance companies can charge customers. Florida hospitals with a heavy load of indigent care, including Miami’s Jackson, are bracing for a steep drop in federal funds as more of the 2009 law takes effect. At the same time, increases in healthcare spending have been leveling off nationwide, cutting into profit potential for providers.

Even so, the decline in healthcare hiring could be a temporary blip. Last year, when the University of Miami and Jackson hospital systems announced layoffs that approached 2,000 positions, the overall South Florida healthcare industry continued posting job growth.

Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, cautioned against reading too much into recent hiring data for healthcare.

“It’s probably reflective of where we are with healthcare reform, and trying to digest what it’s going to mean for premiums and insurance companies and how hospitals and caregivers are going to be paid,’’ Snaith said. “Until some of the smoke clears from healthcare reform, it probably makes sense that people would pause and get their bearings.”

At the Miami Jewish Health Systems, the largest nursing home in Miami-Dade, hiring has been on the rise this year after a round of outsourcing as the recession began in 2007 and 2008. Anthony Treglia, head of the human resources division, said the 460-bed facility now has about 40 job openings either posted or about to be posted.

“I get a hiring report every week,’’ he said. “This is the first time I’ve seen it in the 40s since I started here years ago.”

At the Baptist hospital system, the largest private employer in Miami-Dade, the bulk of the hiring is for positions staffing the outpatient clinics and centers across the county. Growth in those areas are helping Baptist continue to expand. “We are continously hiring,” said Kathy Barbour, a communications executive for Baptist’s personnel department.

Healthcare wasn’t the only drag on Miami-Dade’s hiring report. Local government continues to be the largest anchor on employment growth, with a loss of 5,400 positions in April. That marks the 59th straight month of losses in that sector, which includes public schools. The declines in healthcare and government, along with a 1,200-job loss in manufacturing, wiped out most of the gains from elsewhere in the economy.

Though the job losses were in the local sector, the ongoing decline comes as the federal government cuts spending across the board, including grants and other pass-throughs to fund state and local programs that can squeeze county and city budgets, tooss. Economists see the cuts (known as the “sequester”) and a rise in payroll taxes this year, as cutting into consumer spending and overall economic growth in 2013.

Chris Lafakis, an economist at Moody’s who follows Florida, said the latest report puts Miami-Dade at the back of the pack when it comes to the ongoing rebound. “The April jobs report was pretty bad for Miami,’’ he said. While construction growth is helping labor markets across the country, Miami-Dade hasn’t seen a similar bump yet. “This report confirms [Miami-Dade] is one of the weakest large economies in Florida.”

Some of highest-paying sectors, financial and professional services, added nearly 4,000 jobs in all, while construction continued to eke out minor increases with 400 additional positions. Retail and tourism, two of the most reliable sources of new jobs in Miami-Dade, added nearly 6,000 jobs.

Jaap Donath, head of research for Miami-Dade’s economic development agency, the Beacon Council, said the modest overall growth should be viewed in the context of an economy leveling off after a steep rebound.

“It’s not great. We’ve seen better numbers,’’ Donath said. “But at least we’re seeing a positive movement.”

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