Hurricane Ian: Ritz-Carlton latest resort to announce hundreds of layoffs in Southwest Florida

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Pummeled by Hurricane Ian, the Ritz-Carlton Naples has laid off nearly 600 employees, as it looks to rebuild and recover from the powerful storm.

In a notice sent to the state, Maribeth McElligott, market director of human resources, described the cuts as temporary, sharing that they'd already happened, effective Oct. 13.

"We were unable to provide advance notice of the layoffs as we could not anticipate the extent of damage from these natural disasters," she said. 

The state requires companies to file an advance notice under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act when they plan to lay off 50 or more employees, so state and local assistance can be promptly provided to the affected workers.

Earlier:South Seas Island Resort to lay off nearly 240 employees due to damage from Hurricane Ian

What to know:Hurricane Ian wiped out jobs across Southwest Florida

March 2022 construction at the Ritz-Carlton on Vanderbilt Beach

The Ritz isn't the first major employer in Southwest Florida to file a so-called WARN notice in Ian's wake.

Its notice came two days after a similar one by South Seas Island Resort on Captiva, which announced plans to temporarily lay off nearly 240 employees as it also looks to recover from a severe walloping of its own.

The layoffs at the Ritz are more numerous.

A total of 591 employees are impacted. That includes everything from administrative assistants and cooks to massage therapists and valets.

By number, the most affected workers are banquet servers (32) and housekeepers (31).

The iconic resort, off Vanderbilt Beach Road steps from the Gulf of Mexico, took a beating from a record storm surge. The near-Category 5 storm hit that area of Collier County especially hard.

"Experts and consultants continue to evaluate the extent of the natural disaster damage and have not yet determined when we will reopen the hotel for business," McElligott said. "While we are targeting the first part of 2023, the reopening could be extended with the rebuilding of the power grid, infrastructure and supply chain delays."

Based on all of those uncertainties, she said, the layoffs "may last up to six months or longer."

She also shared that employees have been encouraged to seek unemployment benefits and disaster relief, as well as to explore other opportunities within the Marriott family.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Marriott International. 

The beachfront resort — opened in 1985 — helped put Naples on the map. It was nearing the completion of a major multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion, with an unveiling expected in December — before Ian packed its punch.

While it took a heavy beating from a rush of water and sand, its sister property the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, on the same road farther inland, fared well through the storm and continues to operate as usual.

South Seas closed for the "foreseeable future"

Damage from Ian as seen on Oct. 4, 2022, off Conners Avenue, near Vanderbilt Beach.

As for South Seas, it's in bad shape.

There's no mention of when the resort could reopen on its website — or in its WARN notice about layoffs. It's still without power.

In the notice, Marsha Michael, the resort's director of human resources, said the damages from Ian are severe, resulting in the "cessation" of operations "for the foreseeable future."

She relayed that job cuts began on Oct. 10 and would conclude on Oct. 23.

As with the Ritz, the resort has been forced to lay off workers across its operations.

That includes 77 in housekeeping and laundry services and 84 in food and beverage services, along with 15 employees in recreation and 14 each in the front office and retail.

Other jobs have been lost in reservations, owner relations, human resources and administration, security and communications, and sales and revenue management.

In her letter, Michael also described the reduction of employees at her property as temporary. She did not indicate how long it will be closed.

The owners have vowed to rebuild the storied property, which takes up about a third of the northern tip of the 6-mile-long Captiva Island.

The Timbers Co., Wheelock Street Capital and The Ronto Group jointly acquired the resort last year.

"Ironically, our one-year anniversary was the day the storm hit," said Greg Spencer, CEO of Timbers Resort. "We estimate it's going to be anywhere from $800 million to a billion to not only rebuild the property but to build it back to what the (current) standards are. We're prepared to do that."

There are challenges.

"Lenders have almost zero appetite for investing, funding projects in a hurricane zone," Spencer said. "That's something that's going to be key for us."

In the latest update on the resort's website, management shared that all employees are "accounted for, although one individual remains in the hospital and is improving." 

Further, they state: "We are providing additional pay and resource support for the staff. Nearly 50 staff will be retained on our payroll to assist with the clean-up and recovery effort, and we intend to recall as many as possible once we are able to reopen parts of the resort."

Additionally, an emergency relief fund has been created for employees.

A GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $90,000 — toward a $1 million goal — to help workers who have not only lost their jobs but their homes and cars to Ian. 

More than 350 donations have come in, ranging from $10 to $5,000.

In a post, Michele Baker, who donated $50, said she did so because she loves visiting the island and appreciates "all the time and effort by the people who work there."

Ian may rival pandemic layoffs

While it's too soon to estimate how many jobs have been lost across Southwest Florida, whether temporarily or permanently, due to Ian, the region's life-blood tourism industry took a big hit.

Other large hotels and resorts have yet to reopen. That could potentially trigger more mass layoff filings.

After the pandemic hit in 2020, Florida's official layoff registry showed more than 3,600 permanent or temporary job cuts in Lee and Collier counties by larger employers.

The businesses reporting layoffs or furloughs included retail shops, restaurants, resorts and rental car agencies, due to a sudden drop in business not only from locals but tourists.

Many of those lost jobs came back quickly after Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to ease up on statewide restrictions that shuttered many businesses deemed "non-essential" — or severely limited their operations, allowing them to only offer delivery, carry-out or curbside services. 

Hurricane Ian is a "different animal," so it's hard to draw comparisons, said Amy Hanna-Eckenrode, communications director for CareerSource Southwest Florida.

CareerSource matches job seekers with employers throughout the region. Those efforts have kicked into overdrive post-Ian.

Next week, CareerSource will meet with South Seas employees at its Fort Myers office to assist them with filing for unemployment benefits and disaster relief and finding other employment — and it hopes to do the same for the hundreds of workers the Ritz has let go.

"Jobs to be had" in Southwest Florida

An aerial view of the South Seas Island Resort, which has sold for $50+ million.

Despite the hurricane, Hanna-Eckenrode said there are "absolutely" still "plenty of jobs to be had," especially for those who are motivated and flexible.

She noted CareerSource is looking to hire relief workers itself in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties to help those who have suddenly found themselves without jobs get back on their feet "as quickly as possible."

Before Hurricane Ian, employment stood strong in Southwest Florida.

In September, the region's jobless rate fell to 2.7%, down from 2.9% in August, according to a report released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Because Ian hit at the end of the month, its impacts aren't yet reflected in the state data, Hanna-Eckenrode said.

Amy J. Hanna-Eckenrode

Experts consider 4% full employment, as there are always workers between jobs.

It's hard to determine where employment stands now in the region.

"Obviously, that's still the unknown right now. And it's going to depend on the business," Hanna-Eckenrode said.

The storm impacted all five Southwest Florida counties — and countless businesses are still in recovery mode. Many have vowed to rebuild, but for some of them, it could take years.

"What we want to know is the now," Hanna-Eckenrode said. "Probably it's going to take months for us to even get our arms around that."

Naples Daily News reporter and columnist Phil Fernandez contributed to this story.