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Furloughed Busch Gardens, SeaWorld workers: Sudden layoffs were ‘just a shock'

Workers learned of the cuts through news or social media, rather than directly from the parks. They’re not happy about it.

Adria Curioso learned from a newspaper story that she’d likely lost her job at Busch Gardens.

It happened Sept. 4, the same day the theme park’s parent company, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, filed notice with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it had reached a “plan of termination” for employees who’d been furloughed since March.

Curioso, a furloughed performer in the park’s Sesame Street area, tried to log into an employee web portal to learn more, but saw she’d been locked out. The next day, she got a call from a supervisor confirming the news. Only this week did she receive a termination letter from SeaWorld blaming the layoffs on the “uncertainty, capacity limitations and challenging business environment" created by the coronavirus pandemic.

“They don’t tell the employees in time for anyone to make any sort of calls,” said Curioso, 26, of Temple Terrace. “They just announce it, and you get to find out when your friends start panicking on social media.”

Ten former SeaWorld and Busch Gardens employees shared similar stories with the Tampa Bay Times. Furloughed since March, they learned of last week’s layoffs from headlines or social media, or after being blocked from employee accounts.

“An email or phone call would have been nice, but yeah, we didn’t get that,” said Sydney Harber, 25, of Tampa, another Sesame Street performer. “Most of us figured that we would all come back at some point, but we knew the parks weren’t doing that great. It was just a shock that, all of a sudden, there are news reports saying SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment is laying off (employees)."

Related: SeaWorld, Hard Rock plan layoffs at Florida properties

“There was basically no communication from the start,” said ex-SeaWorld performer Matthew Kellam, 21. “But as time went on, it went from maybe one email a month to absolutely nothing.”

Before the pandemic, SeaWorld had 4,300 full-time and 11,000 part-time employees spread across a dozen parks, including Busch Gardens and Adventure Island in Tampa. When the nation shut down in March, the company furloughed 90 percent of its workforce. Attendance dropped 96 percent year-over-year in April, May and June. Many employees returned when some parks reopened in June, although some saw their hours reduced.

Last week’s layoffs affected 1,896 employees at SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove and Aquatica; and another 948 in Tampa, according to notices filed with the state. Between the parks, the layoffs include more than 150 positions tied to animal care and training. But most work in shops, restaurants, offices, theaters and elsewhere.

Patrons of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay line up for security checks before entering the amusement park on Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Tampa. The park, owned and operated by SeaWorld Entertainment, has reopened to the public for the first time in almost 3 months after closing on March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Patrons of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay line up for security checks before entering the amusement park on Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Tampa. The park, owned and operated by SeaWorld Entertainment, has reopened to the public for the first time in almost 3 months after closing on March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Related: Busch Gardens, SeaWorld attendance drops 96 percent due to coronavirus

“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,” the company said in a statement. “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 termination packet wasn’t the only notice the company mailed employees last week.

The day before the layoffs, SeaWorld sent employees another letter detailing, among other things, changes to the company’s severance policy, which was moving from a “fixed formula” to a “facts-and-circumstances based determination.” The new policy went into effect Sept. 2.

“They changed the policy two days before they fired me,” said Ernie Abrams, a theater tech who had been with SeaWorld Orlando for 31 years. “That’s not right. I know it’s legal, because Florida’s a right-to-work state. But it’s just not right.”

According to Abrams, the company’s prior severance had been a week’s pay for every year of employment, up to a certain number of weeks. Now, he said, the amount was at the company’s discretion. Instead of the months of pay he was expecting, he got four weeks.

“I’m a senior technician,” said Abrams, 52, of Kissimmee. “I have so much information in my head. I was one of the top performers in the department. I was expecting to be called back.”

Over the summer, furloughed SeaWorld workers said they received a notice through their online portal that said if they had questions about their employment, they should contact human resources, not their supervisor.

“As a theme park, for them to say, ‘Oh, don’t ask any questions, just wait it out and hope,’ shows a lack of preparedness and professionalism on their end,” Kellam said.

“The company as a whole has a problem with communication,” Curioso said. “The departments don’t communicate with each other properly, and upper management doesn’t communicate properly with lower management, and then down to the employees.”

She added: “I know that managers calling people to check up with them wasn’t a thing that everyone got. My specific department, I feel like they care a lot about their employees, but it wasn’t a corporate-mandated thing where they asked managers to check in with the employees. So a lot of employees didn’t get a call.”

Related: Busch Gardens reopens to light, sweaty crowds wearing face masks

SeaWorld’s termination packet included an explanation of why the company decided to notify employees by mail, rather than through a supervisor.

“This separation event impacts a large number of furloughed Ambassadors and it is occurring during a global pandemic,” it read. “For everyone’s safety, we felt it was best to communicate outside of in-person meetings. While we know that a face-to-face meeting would have been better, we hope you will understand why it was not possible during this unprecedented time.”

Employees with ties to other parks said they were treated differently there. Jason Laramee of Clermont worked part-time as a SeaWorld performer and full-time in hotels for Universal Orlando, which never laid him off. His mother was furloughed from Disney, but brought back over the summer.

“She had managers who were reaching out to her every other week, going, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” said Laramee, 31. “Universal was still paying us full-timers, and trying to keep every single one of us in the loop. They had a message every other week. SeaWorld, it was just nothing.”

Related: Disney theme parks take $3.5 billion hit this spring

Most information Laramee got about SeaWorld came from friends who had been recalled from furlough. He initially expected he’d be called back, too, but grew unsure in late August, when the company invited him and other furloughed employees to a last-minute audition for new roles at a lower hourly rate.

“I’m a performer. It’s about going from gig to gig; I understand that," he said. "But it’s definitely one of those things where I’m cautioned. It’s like, ‘This is how we deal with people?’”

SeaWorld spokeswoman Lori Cherry said the auditions were for seasonal roles, which traditionally pay less, not the performers' old roles. The company otherwise declined to respond to specific questions, including about severance changes and how layoffs were conveyed to employees.

Despite their dissatisfaction with the company, other performers struggling on unemployment say they’d consider returning.

“I have a couple of side gigs that I do, but my life is in entertainment, and unfortunately, that industry is pretty much nonexistent right now,” said Harber, who has gone back to school to become an esthetician, or skin-care specialist. “Hopefully further down the road, I can get back into it.”

Curioso loved her Busch Gardens job “in spite of the company,” she said. She worked in operations and guest relations before becoming a character in Sesame Street, where she worked — in the kid-friendly parlance of the park — as “a friend of” Elmo and Julia.

“I am tired of them not treating people that are the face of their company with respect," she said. “The ground-level employees are the face, the people that you see when you get through the gates. Those are the first people you interact with. And if those people don’t get treated with respect, they’re not very likely to treat guests with respect. It kind of ruins your entire image.”

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