MIAMI - Codri Sangeorzan loved being a bartender at the Diplomat Hotel. She had a picture-perfect view of the ocean from the lobby bar, enjoyed meeting guests from all over the world, and had great camaraderie with her co-workers after 13 years at the hotel.
A single mom with two young sons, she made $10.90 per hour, plus tips, and typically brought home between $600 to $700 per week, which covered the $1,700 she needs for her mortgage and car payment, and her other bills.
Last week, Sangeorzan and the other 684 union workers at the Diplomat were laid off as the coronavirus outbreak forced hotels to shut down.
"It's just scary," she said. "When I received the layoff letter, it was like, 'Oh my god'. I felt like my heart was going to stop. When you work at a hotel like the Diplomat for so long, you feel you have stability in your job and all of a sudden, you receive a layoff letter, and you think, 'OK, what's going to happen to me now? How will I be able to sustain my family? How will I be able to provide, pay my mortgage, pay my car?' We all feel very scared."
Jobs numbers released Thursday showed more than 3 million Americans applied for unemployment compensation last week; in Florida, the number was 74,000. The report covers the week ending March 21, before Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered Miami-Dade hotels to stop accepting new reservations.
Numbers for tourism layoffs aren't yet available. But according to study by Oxford Economics conducted on behalf of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, an estimated 4 million U.S. hotel jobs will be lost in the coming weeks. That includes 141,000 direct jobs; when combined with jobs with hotel suppliers, the total is estimated at 336,467.
The industry employs 8.3 million people nationwide and pays more than $97 billion in wages and salary income. Hotels contribute roughly $660 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.
In Florida, 3,240 hotels support 950,000 hospitality jobs. Hotel occupancy in Miami-Dade County's 469 rooms plummeted from 90% to 20% in the past two weeks, and that is having a drastic effect on 150,000 local workers employed in the hospitality sector.
Unite Here, the leading labor union for hospitality workers, said it expects 80 to 90% of its 300,000 members to be out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to the crisis, Miami-Dade had about 30,000 hotel workers, according to the state.
Wendi Walsh is the secretary of Unite Here Local 355, which represents 7,000 workers in South Florida and 32,000 statewide. She worries that even when other businesses eventually resume, the hotel industry will take longer to regain its footing.
"If you've closed a hair salon, I anticipate people are going to come back pretty fast," Walsh said. "In the hotels, this large-group business is not coming back overnight. We're anticipating having a very significant number of these workers laid off through the end of the year, at the very least. We're looking at 40% unemployment in hotels through 2020.
"This is not a short-term problem. I think the way people are thinking about this is - -don't worry, they'll re-open soon. It's not that simple."
Much of the local hotel market is group business, and conventions of 1,000 to 1,500 people likely won't be rescheduled until mid-2021.
"In South Florida, we're going to have to campaign hard to bring conventions and group business back," Walsh said. "It will take a real big effort."
MAKING ENDS MEET
In hotels, layoffs have affected workers at all levels, from housekeepers to senior managers. In the meantime, local unemployed hotel workers are scrambling to figure out how to make ends meet.
Dana Humes is a 50-year-old waiter at the Hyatt Regency Miami. He worked a 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. On March 18, he got a text from his manager telling him not to go to work. The city had ordered restaurants and bars to close down, so Humes lost his job.
Humes and his co-workers suspected their jobs were in danger when business slowed down, hotel guests canceled and news of closures filled the airways.
"Even though I knew it might happen, when I lost my job, I thought, 'Oh man. Now what?' I didn't know what to do, what to think. I was scared. I'm 50 years old. I'm a disabled veteran. It's not easy for me to just go find another job. Not only that, everything in the field I work in is closed. There's nothing to do. Nowhere to go. So, of course, I'm anxious about that."
Humes has been trying desperately to file for unemployment but cannot log into the system online because he filed for unemployment once before and his PIN number has expired. The recording gives him a number to call to change his PIN, but he has been unable to get through.
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"I have been calling that number at least 130 times a day," Humes said. "I tried calling all sorts of numbers. I even tried calling the governor's office. It is very frustrating. And I saw on their Facebook page that other people are having the same issue. I need to file for unemployment, and I can't because I can't reset my PIN. Every time I call, it says they are experiencing high volume of calls, and then it hangs up on me."
Humes has been keeping in touch with his co-workers. He said they are all somber and anxious.
"We don't know where our next check is coming from," he said.
Humes figures he can manage two or three weeks. After that, he will be desperate.
"At some point, we have to be responsible for ourselves," he said. "You can't close down the entire economy, especially certain sectors of the economy because you destroy people's lives. This is a tragic event nobody had foreseen or been through, but we can't just ruin everyone's careers and their lives."
Gino Cansino can relate. The Peruvian-American father of two was a cook at the Diplomat. He made $450 per week, and had a second job as a cook at the high-end Japanese restaurant Makoto in the Bal Harbour Shops. He lost both jobs within a three-day span.
"Last Friday, we were all working, and all of a sudden, the chef got close to us and gave us a letter and told us that due to the coronavirus the hotel is closing and there's nothing he can do and we would be left without work," Cansino said.
"It was very impactful for me and my co-workers to hear that we won't have work for at least one month, and maybe longer. Everybody was in shock. We understand the situation, but we are all scared now about how we can support our families."
Cansino is a single dad and lives in West Park with his 8-year-old daughter Mia and 7-year-old son Mateo.
"I keep asking myself, 'What am I going to do with all my bills?' I have strong faith in God and I am leaving it in his hands," he said. "I am trying to be patient and calm."
His children know what is going on.
"They know I am not working because I'm home with them, and they ask: "Papi, did you lose your job because of the coronavirus?"
Cansino's immediate plan is to use his small savings account to cover expenses for March. After that, he will apply for unemployment.
"I have never asked for unemployment, but I have no alternative," he said "The government says they are going to help people, but we don't know when or how much."
Sangeorzan came to the United States from Romania in 2005 looking for a better life. She said she was happy and comfortable with her job and her Hallandale apartment, where she lives with her sons Alexander, 10, and Michael, 13. Now she is worried.
"Everything happened so fast," she said. "The week before we got the letter we heard from management that some big groups are canceling, and that was very concerning for us. Our hotel is a convention hotel. Our business is based on business people.
"The company said we could use the vacation and sick days we had, so I got seven days' pay from that. But it won't be enough. People are scared, they're afraid they're not going to make it. I am really concerned about the back of the house, so many stewards, cooks, 80 maids who are most of them living paycheck by paycheck.
Sangeorzan said she got call Tuesday from a housekeeper seeking help filling out her unemployment application.
"We are trying to stick together, we have group chats to support each other and stay connected, some people have been looking into jobs with Amazon and delivery jobs. It's going to be a very difficult year for everybody, but I think the hospitality industry will suffer the most."
"If I could address our national leaders, I would tell them not to forget all the people who work in hospitality, hotels, restaurants," he said "I keep hearing about helping small businesses and big industries. One hotel has more than 1,000 workers and we are all unemployed right now. All over the state. This state relies on hotels, even the president owns hotels. I hope he doesn't forget about us."
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