SeaWorld's latest round of layoffs fuel rumors and talks of unionizing


  • Photo courtesy SeaWorld/Facebook
Central Florida’s labor problems were exacerbated on Friday when SeaWorld officially let go of all its furloughed employees. The move was felt across nearly every department at the Orlando-based chain but especially at SeaWorld's Orlando parks.

When the COVID-19 related closures first struck the tourism industry in mid-March, SeaWorld Parks furloughed nearly their staff. Since reopening a few months later, the company has worked to adjust its hours and operations to adequately address the softened demand. In places like Orlando and Las Vegas, which rely heavily upon out-of-town visitors, recovery has been weak, as many people still express concerns regarding traveling during a global pandemic, though recent surveys have shown a vast majority of Americans do plan on traveling within the next six months. Officials at Walt Disney World confirmed that half of all visitors there are locals from Florida, while Universal Orlando has begun offering massive discounts in an attempt to attract locals.

In those regards, SeaWorld is well-situated thanks to a five-year-old strategy of attracting visitors from within a 300-mile radius of its parks. Since that marketing strategy was first unveiled, the company has seen increases in attendance and in-park spending. Even as air travel has yet to recover, SeaWorld parks in Orlando have increased their operations to seven days a week, and the resort in Texas is shifting from seasonal to year-round operations thanks to an increase in guest demand.

It should be noted that this past Labor Day Weekend saw large crowds across Florida's theme parks. Still, with school now back in session and economic uncertainty persisting, attendance is expected to be slow until the holiday season this winter. For Central Florida theme parks and hotels, the fall is typically saved thanks to a trifecta of Halloween events, conventions, and sporting events, nearly all of which have been canceled this year. For those that haven't, such as Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream, the events has been scaled back dramatically. For Howl-O-Scream, that means no indoor haunted houses, the flagship draw of the event. 
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has reopened a section of the park where a limited number of guests can enjoy a food festival-like event and a limited number of attractions. In California, SeaWorld is prepping to reopen as a zoo with no rides operating.

Even as guest demand has increased, the company, like the entire tourism industry, is still facing a hard road ahead as it climbs out of the pandemic induced recession.

Before Friday’s layoffs, some furloughed employees expressed concern when they saw hiring ads for what looked to be their exact positions. On social media, there has been speculation that SeaWorld was laying off employees only to rehire for the same jobs with lower pay. In speaking to the Orlando Weekly, a spokesperson for SeaWorld denied those claims, stating, “We are aware of the assertion” but explained that the jobs being advertised were for “evergreen positions that are always posted due to high turnover.” They went on to explain some positions, such as culinary ones, see high levels of turnover, so the HR needs to have a bank of resumes. While some jobs being advertised are similar to ones of furloughed employees, to their knowledge, there were no exact furloughed positions that were being advertised. They also noted that furloughed employees were able and encouraged to apply to posted positions.

In an official statement sent to media outlets, SeaWorld pointed to the impacts that the pandemic has had on its operations but didn’t mention any restructuring

“The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a significant impact on each of our lives, in ways both small and profound. The same is true for the travel, tourism, entertainment, and hospitality industries, and the operations of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.

While we were able to bring thousands of furloughed Ambassadors back to work and hoped to bring back everyone, the current environment requires us to setup the company for long term success. SeaWorld has determined that it must transition certain park and corporate personnel from a furloughed status to a permanent layoff.

We deeply appreciate the hard work and dedication of our Ambassadors to our company’s shared mission, values, and goals. Over our 60-year history, our parks have inspired millions of guests to love, protect and care for our planet’s animals and their habitats. We are sorry to have to part ways with any team members in this difficult moment, but their abiding commitment to our guests, fellow Ambassadors and animals is recognized and made a lasting impact.”

The company did acknowledge a restructuring in paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, noting, “the Company expects to record approximately $2.5 million to $3.0 million of restructuring and related charges in the third quarter of 2020 related to employee severance costs." It’s unclear what the restructuring will entail.

A job listing on LinkedIn shows that SeaWorld is currently looking for a 
Manager of Finance, Financial Planning and Analysis to "Track and report on corporate and park operating costs and help facilitate the Company’s ZBB process."

There have also been reports of entire departments within SeaWorld being eliminated. According to a source with knowledge of SeaWorld Orlando’s internal operations, the park has streamlined reporting procedures by combining the rides, shows, restrooms, pathways, guest services, guest arrivals, ticket sales, parking, and tolls departments into a single department while eliminating some leadership positions within the former departments.  A spokesperson for SeaWorld denied the claims.“Do have fewer people working, absolutely. But that’s based more on operational needs post-COVID.” Nothing has changed in regards to the reporting structure at SeaWorld Orlando, according to the spokesperson.

Multiple attractions now have limited hours, closing well before the park itself. SeaWorld has pointed to new firework launch points, used to allow for more social distancing as the reasoning behind the early ride closures, but some believe the limited ride hours are due to the elimination of some ride manager positions or other cost-cutting initiatives. According to the SeaWorld spokesperson, this is inaccurate. They went on to say no ride manager positions were eliminated, and reporting structure within the Orlando park has remained the same since before the pandemic.

Still, as the SEC paperwork stated, restructuring options are being reviewed by the company. One potential cost-cutting option for the park is to outsource some departments. On the anonymous message board, The Layoff, some posters who identify themselves as current or former employees have expressed concerns that the Orlando park may see an increase in 3rd party contracts, especially for departments like horticulture, vending, and entertainment. In January, SeaWorld announced plans to outsource its carnival games. Years ago, there were rumors that the company was looking at bringing in an outside vendor to operate some dining locations, similar to the third-party operators that run select restaurants within Disney parks. However, nothing ever came from those rumors. Some entertainment, including the popular bubble show that the park had a few years ago, are third party contracts, though most of those are for a limited run that lasts only a few months.

All the uncertainty has led some employees to look at potentially unionize in an effort to bring more stability to their positions. In early March, just before the pandemic related shutdown, SeaWorld Orlando’s security guards announced efforts to unionize. They would join the International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America. Last month the Orlando Sentinel confirmed that those efforts were on hold for the time being. On The Layoff message boards, the union talks have continued with fierce debate on how helpful other unions, specifically, those at Disney World, have been to furloughed employees. Some have pointed to recent pay increases that are now happening at Disney, but others note pay increases with limited income can last for so long.

Wall Street estimates put the company back in the black (based on earnings) some type between the fourth quarter of this year and the third quarter of next. In the meantime, more restructuring and layoffs are expected not only at SeaWorld but across the entire tourism industry.


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