How Florida businesses are responding to employees during the COVID-19 crisis
World Wrestling Entertainment
Two days after state officials declared WWE an essential business, allowing it to put on live shows without an audience, WWE — run by billionaire Vince McMahon — laid off dozens of wrestlers, producers and other employees. The layoffs were estimated to save more than $8 million a year. Critics argue that the layoffs could have been avoided, however, pointing to WWE’s deep reserves. As of December, the company, which operates a training facility in Orlando, had about $90 million in cash on hand. Additionally, WWE decided to keep its regular quarterly dividend and will pay out more than $9 million to shareholders in June.
Boca Raton-based Crocker Partners, a commercial real estate owner and manager with 175 employees, gave its engineers and maintenance staff a 20% pay increase to continue working on site during the pandemic. The company sent other employees home to work, assuring them that their jobs and salaries were secure.
Aside from layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, the pandemic has led to new concerns about worker safety, whether it's contract FedEx drivers delivering packages without personal protective gear or teachers required to show up to their school buildings despite being able to do online instruction at home. Florida’s migrant farmworkers — deemed essential for their work in keeping the food supply chain going — are especially vulnerable in the event of an outbreak, advocates say, noting that most live in tight quarters, get no paid time off or health insurance, and go to work without gloves, hand sanitizer or space between them in the field.
A Surge in Job Losses
Like all states, Florida has experienced an unprecedented rise in layoffs.
Shortly after social distancing and other related measures took effect in March, the number of Floridians who reported losing their jobs skyrocketed — from 5,500 a week, on average, in January and February to more than 228,000 during the week of March 22-28, far and away the largest weekly total since the Labor Department began tracking the data in 1986. For context, the worst week of the Great Recession saw about 40,400 laid-off Floridians file unemployment insurance claims.
“Typically, unemployment is a lagging indicator that gradually increases when an economy is going into recession, and this was just instantaneous,” says Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “We turned the lights out on large swaths of the economy.”
Snaith, who heads UCF’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, predicts that jobless claims will remain high through the fall, with the unemployment rate jumping to double digits from an all-time low of 2.8% in February. The depth and duration of the economic downturn largely will depend on when things return to normal and what the new normal looks like.
Hospitality and tourism-related businesses, both large and small, could take a long time to recover, he says, adding that until there’s a vaccine or drug therapy for COVID-19, many people will be reluctant to go to theme parks and malls, board airplanes and cruise ships and eat out in restaurants. “I don’t think we’ll get back immediately to 100 million visitors a year to Florida,” he says.
Indeed, Florida’s reliance on tourism makes it especially susceptible to a pandemic-induced recession, but the state’s strong economy before the coronavirus should help it weather the crisis. “Like a healthy person who gets the virus, the impact might not be as severe as it would’ve been if Florida’s economy had been teetering,” he says.
Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.
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