Pains of the pandemic: Osceola County leads the state in unemployment

  • A food distribution event was recently held at The Rock Church in Kissimmee. More than 500 families were helped. SUBMITTED PHOTO
    A food distribution event was recently held at The Rock Church in Kissimmee. More than 500 families were helped. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Thousands of Osceola County residents who lost their jobs in the tourism and service industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic are still struggling to meet basic needs like buying food and paying rent.
Some have gained employment elsewhere, and some have returned to their jobs. But hours have been cut and part-time, lowwage jobs are the only work many can find.
There are now more unemployed people per-capita in Osceola than in any of the other 66 counties, according to Florida’s latest unemployment figures.
“I never thought we’d be where we are now,” Kissimmee resident Ibrahim Cepeda said on a recent Saturday as he and his wife picked up two bags of groceries from a drive-through food distribution line.
Tourism tops the economic pyramid in Central Florida and with theme parks, attractions and resorts operating at lower capacity — along with the myriad of businesses that support the industry — times are tough in Central Florida.
Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld alone have laid off tens of thousands of employees over the past eight months. As a region, Central Florida has been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Cepeda, a former baggage
Cepeda, a former baggage handler at Orlando International Airport, now delivers pizza and drives for Uber to support his family. But he earns nowhere near what he did working for the airline.
His wife, Shayla, got laid off from her housekeeping job at a local resort in March and returned to a part-time position there last month.
“When we pay everything, we’re still about $50 short every month,” said Ibrahim, 33.
They exhausted the last of their savings this summer to pay rent. The couple lost their health
The couple lost their health insurance, but were able to get their children covered through Medicaid, and they now rely on an elderly family member for babysitting when they are both working.
Ibrahim will soon finish an electronic board programming course at Valencia College and hopes to land a job in the defense industry next year.
In the meantime, the Cepedas rely on weekly food donations to make their money stretch as far as possible.
“I never thought I wouldn’t be able to put food on the table,” he said.
The Cepeda’s situation is all too common in Osceola County, where the unemployed accounted for 13.3 percent of the labor force in September.
The national unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 14.4 percent in April. The state and national averages are 7.6 and 7.9 percent, respectively. Eviction prevention funds are doled out through the county’s Human Services office and local churches and charities like the Salvation Army, the Osceola County Council on Aging, the St. Cloud Community Pantry and the Community Hope Center are providing down-and-out residents with food and other basic necessities.
Mary Downey, CEO of the Community Hope Center, said that the number of people seeking food hasn’t waned since the onset of the pandemic.
“Since about April, when that first round of lay-offs really hit, but before people were able to gain their unemployment benefits, the biggest concern was food insecurity. And we thought that would be temporary,” she said. “We thought once people were able to get back to work and be able to get their unemployment benefits that maybe that need would decrease,” Downey said.
But last week, the Hope Center provided food for a record 1,400 people. “That has been a
“That has been a huge pivot for us as an organization. Instead of us looking at the future needs of the people we’re serving, we’re now having to look at just basic needs, helping people just get food on the table.”

Local food assistance providers

• Community Hope Center 321 677 0246 ,

• Osceola Council on Aging, 407-846- 8532,

• Salvation Army Osceola, 407-944-9968,

• St. Cloud Community Pantry, 407-892- 7070, • Mercy Foundation

• Mercy Foundation Osceola, info@ • The Rock

• The Rock Church, 407-396- 7777,

• Calvary Assembly of God, Kissimmee, 407-847- 5673

• First United Methodist Church, Kissimmee, 407- 847-8805 • A Place for Grace

• A Place for Grace Ministries, 407-593-2969,

• Osceola County: