Southwest Florida hoteliers cut more jobs, extend furloughs as coronavirus pandemic rages on

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

The coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on tourism in Southwest Florida.

As a result, more industry jobs are in limbo — and on the chopping block.

Through Florida’s official layoff registry, several local hoteliers have recently notified the state they've been forced to extend temporary furloughs and layoffs  — and to consider or make permanent job cuts, due to the lingering impacts of COVID-19.

The same is happening elsewhere in the state, including in Tampa and Miami.

The state's go-to website for information on Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications — or WARN notices — shows how the tourism industry's recovery in Florida — and Southwest Florida — will take time and it won't be pretty.

On Sept. 1, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in Bonita Springs permanently let go 92 employees.

An observation tower, seen from the entry boardwalk, offers broad views including an osprey nest with sitting birds at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

The resort made temporary layoffs and furloughs in late March, but then had to follow that with the difficult decision not to bring dozens of its employees back a few weeks ago, due to "the effective shutdown" of much of its business, general manager Brian Kramer explained in a WARN notice.

"With a significant reduction in our business in a rapidly evolving situation, we have to make painful choices that would have seemed unthinkable just a short time ago," he wrote. "The reality is we need to take further action to support the long-term operation of the company in a completely new operating environment." 

Affected workers ranged from administrative assistants and bellhops to security officers and group sales managers. 

Most groups that planned meetings and events at the Hyatt Coconut Point this fall have canceled due to the fears, uncertainties and restrictions surrounding the pandemic, leaving the resort with no choice but to pare down its workforce, Kramer said in an email.

"The associates are like family members to us and it was very emotional for us all, but I remain optimistic that bringing the virus under control will help us reunite with them again," he said.

Kramer thanked the local community for all of its support "during this unprecedented time," including the residents who've visited its spa, dined at its restaurants or booked rooms for a staycation, bringing much-needed business to the luxury, waterfront resort.

"It really does make a difference," he said.

In case you missed it:Coronavirus dampens international tourism summer season in SWFL

More:Florida's official layoff registry shows deep impacts of COVID-19 in SWFL

More to come

Like the Hyatt, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club could soon permanently let go of dozens of its employees too.

In a notice described as "anticipatory," the hotel shared that it had extended furloughs for 90 employees to Sept. 26 — and that it will part ways with those who aren't called back by that date.

Patsy Carbone, the hotel's human resources director, wrote that she expected a number of factors to "exacerbate and extend the highly unfavorable business climate for the hotel," including the continued rise in COVID-19 cases across the country.

Affected employees work across many departments, from human resources and sales to food services and housekeeping. 

Meanwhile, with the coronavirus still raging, The Embassy Suites by Hilton in Estero plans to extend its temporary furloughs to longer than six months, according to its recent WARN notice.

The decision affects 41 employees.

"The company is still hopeful that it may be able to return some of these employees to work sooner, but that is no longer the company's best estimate based on the information available to it at this time," wrote Shaune Caliguire, the hotel's general manager in the notice.

The hotel's extended separations will impact employees at all levels, from room attendants and bussers to engineers and front office management. 

In a statement, the Embassy Suites blamed the situation on "unforeseen circumstances caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic and mandates that have restricted travel as well as limited use of hotel operations and outlets." 

"We look forward to welcoming our team members back once travel rebounds," the company stated, leaving open the possibility of rehiring some of them down the road.

Guests sit under yellow umbrellas in front of Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach on Friday, June 26, 2020. Pink Shell general manager Bill Waichulis said that an uptick in out of state visitors is filling much of the gap in business left by the "non-existent" European tourism this summer.

The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires most larger companies — with 100 or more employees  — to report work-site closings or mass layoffs to their employees, communities and the state, at least 60 days in advance. Notice to the state triggers critical assistance to affected workers with unemployment claims and reemployment.

More:Tourism picture in Southwest Florida brightens in June, but dark clouds loom with rise in coronavirus cases

Many businesses hurt by the coronavirus here and elsewhere in Florida filed their notices long after making massive job cuts.

Acknowledging the suddenness of the pandemic's onset, the state has determined that it's OK for employers to provide notice "as soon as practicable" in this type of a situation, even if it's after the fact, according to Paige Landrum, press secretary for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the state's unemployment system.

WARN notices filed with the state from March to June showed COVID-19 resulting in more than 3,600 permanent or temporary job cuts in Lee and Collier counties.

Many of the job losses have been in the tourism industry, which saw a sudden, immediate impact from the pandemic — and has been more severely affected because travel has remained at a crawl all over the world.

Some of the local jobs covered by earlier WARN notices have come back.

However, as the health crisis has worn on more area employers have filed new or updated WARN notices, reflecting additional jobs that have been temporarily lost — and could be extended or permanently eliminated.

They've come during a time that's traditionally been the slowest for tourism anyway, with the start of Southwest Florida's busy season still a few months away.

Check it out:Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort to enhance its outdoor experience with waterpark, outdoor restaurant

SunStream Hotels & Resorts filed its first and only WARN notice recently, saying it made 140 layoffs at seven properties in Southwest Florida back in late March and early April.

Those layoffs were meant to be temporary, but it's unclear how many  — if any — of those employees have been brought back on board because the current status isn't mentioned in the notice.

SunStream's properties include everything from the DiamondHead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach to the Bellasera Resort in downtown Naples. A representative for the company couldn't immediately be reached for comment. 

Others hurting

Hoteliers aren't the only ones in the hospitality industry facing tough decisions about whether to make temporary job cuts permanent or to extend them to a later date,

Guest Services, a national hospitality management company, recently made the tough decision to eliminate nearly 50 jobs statewide, including more than a dozen in Southwest Florida.

According to a WARN notice signed by two company executives, the business hasn't recovered from COVID-19 the way they'd hoped, requiring it to make permanent separations.

Many of the properties Guest Services manages here and elsewhere in the state still have limited operations due to the coronavirus scare.

Locally, the company provides management services to the DoubleTree Suites in North Naples, where 10 jobs will be lost, from the front desk to the dining room to the front office.

Guest Services will also eliminate another three jobs at a centralized hospitality management and reservations center nearby.

All of the layoffs will take effect Sept. 26.

A guest sits in the shade in front of Outrigger Beach Resort in Fort Myers Beach on Friday, June 26, 2020. General manager JeanneÊBigos said that typically this time of year nearly half of the resort's guests are European, but that hasn't been the case this year.

In late March, Paradies-Shell Factory, a retail operator at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, temporarily laid off many of its associates because passenger traffic had become so light, according to a WARN notice.

In the notice, general manager Rachel Berta shared that those layoffs, originally intended to be "brief," could now last more than six months.

"Due to the fluidity of the situation surrounding COVID-19 and the reopening of the economy, we're not able to predict exactly when those associates will be able to return to work," she wrote. 

The notice covers a total of 81 employees, most of whom were temporarily laid off back in March or early April.

Losing jobs

Like Paradies, HMSHost, a food and beverage operator at the airport, has also seen a drastic drop in its business due to lighter passenger traffic.

In a WARN notice, Carrie Hernandez, a human resources field representative for the company, said temporary furloughs made early on in the pandemic will become permanent layoffs Oct. 15. 

The notice covers 169 local employees, including nearly 60 bartenders/servers.

The company isn't just slashing jobs at Southwest Florida International. It's doing the same at other airports around the state, including ones in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Miami. 

In all, HMSHost has warned it will eliminate more than 2,600 jobs in Florida by October.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the travel and restaurant industries, and, unfortunately, HMSHost sits at the crossroads of both," Hernandez wrote. "Never in the history of aviation and the hospitality industry, have we experienced such catastrophic customer declines." 

Travelers look at flight information at Southwest Florida International Airport in 2016.

Initially, the company hoped to bring all of its employees back by summer. 

"The unfortunate reality is that it is going to take a significant period for our business to recover," Hernandez said.

In a company statement, HMSHost added that "a recent surge in COVID-19 cases nationally has stalled passenger traffic and there is no short-term end in sight to the economic crisis."

Due to the slow recovery and challenging business climate, HMSHost has made the difficult decision to lay off a significant portion of our associates across the country," the company said via a written statement. "We are deeply grateful to all of our associates for their commitment and care for our guests and one another to make HMSHost a best-in-class company."