Coronavirus in Florida: What Pandemic Is Like for Theme Park Workers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Four thousand phone calls.

To be more specific, Paul and Julia Cox figure they called the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity 4,480 times between April 19, when Walt Disney World furloughed them, and June 7, when glitches with their state and federal unemployment benefits were finally sorted out.

The Coxes are among the lucky ones. While most people have received one-time stimulus payments from the federal government, UNITE HERE, a union representing 30,000 hospitality workers in the Orlando area, recently said that at least 1,500 of its members had yet to receive any unemployment payments from the state. Florida has been one of the slowest states to process jobless claims, in part because its system was designed to be arduous.

One housekeeper in late May sent UNITE HERE a three-word plea: “Please help me!!!!”

Few areas of the country rely on tourism more than central Florida, which is home to Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal, Gatorland, Legoland and a plethora of smaller attractions. An estimated 250,000 people work in the leisure and hospitality industries, accounting for 25 percent of jobs in the area, according to the trade organization Visit Orlando.

Most workers whose livelihood depends on Orlando’s ability to attract tourists in large numbers have managed to get by as the amusement economy shut down around them — though for some it has been a struggle.


“My last day of work was hard, sad, because there was a silence and a feeling of farewell, of estrangement and uncertainty, in the air. We wondered when we would meet again.”

— Karina Lira, Disney World housekeeper

Recent weeks have brought a new kind of purgatory for tourism workers in the region. Will spiking coronavirus cases in Florida halt the reopening that was beginning to happen? Disney, for instance, has been calling back employees ahead of a limited return to operations on July 11.

“To Disney’s credit, they have done everything in their power to mitigate our safety concerns about returning to work,” said Mr. Cox, who also serves as president of Disney World’s stagehand union. “People are mostly terrified that the company is going to stop the recalls. That would be a disaster. People are barely hanging on as it is, and unemployment benefits will end soon.”

Others are worried that going back to work will lead to infection. With the coronavirus now rampaging in Florida, one Disney employee started an online petition asking the company and government officials to reconsider their reopening timelines. It had close to 15,000 signatures on Friday.

Before the coronavirus halted travel in March, Orlando was booming. The convention center, the second largest in North America, had announced a $605 million addition; billions of dollars’ worth of new theme park attractions and hotels were on the way; and Orlando International Airport was working on a $3 billion expansion.

With local officials estimating that it could take five years for visitation to rebound from the pandemic, many of those growth projects are being scaled back or postponed. Unemployment in the Orlando metropolitan area was 22.6 percent in May, the highest level since Florida began its current estimating process in 1976. Universal Orlando made sweeping layoffs this past week.

Eve Edelheit reported and photographed from Orlando, and Brooks Barnes reported from Los Angeles.

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