"It's Not Like I Can Go Apply For A Job Somewhere Else." South Florida Hospitality Workers Hit Hard

Mar 20, 2020
Originally published on March 19, 2020 3:17 pm

When Marlins Park opened in 2012, a neomodern shrine to baseball rising in Miami’s Little Havana, Duane Thwaites figured he’d found his dream job.

The Brooklyn native moved to Miami nearly 30 years ago, raised his four kids, got hired for opening day and returned every season, climbing the ladder to supervise a concession.

“It's just hard to explain why I like the job and I stick with it, but it's, you know, I feel it's like my passion,” said Thwaites, 51.

Then last week, two days into training his staff on the menu for opening day later this month, he got an email with dire news: the park was closing indefinitely.

“Everyone is scared,” he said Wednesday. “We're living paycheck by paycheck. To lose a day is bad enough. But leaving it indefinite, [so] you don't know when you're gonna go back, it's a really frightening thing.”

Across South Florida, the COVID-19 coronavirus has slammed the hospitality industry as stadiums, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos close dining rooms or shut down. As South Florida hunkers down at home, hotels and resorts suddenly confront a wave of cancellations -- and a looming hush at the height of the season. 

About 100,000 workers in the industry are now facing an uncertain future, putting them at risk not just from a pandemic, but from debt and a host of other social ills, said Wendi Walsh, the secretary and treasurer at Unite Here 355, the industry union for South Florida.

Covid-19 has sidelined about 90 percent of workers at a time when many bankroll the rest of the year, she said.

“We went from 100 percent employment down to about 10 percent,” she said. “We've never had a situation where our entire industry went down all at once.”

Walsh worries without health insurance, and with unemployment benefits weeks away -- and capped at $275 per week -- South Florida will see a wave of homelessness and even worse healthcare conditions.

“If you are laid off today, your health insurance ends at the end of the month and in the midst of a global pandemic,” she said. “We can't have hundreds of thousands of workers in Florida without health care.”

The union is asking businesses to extend coverage and provide workers with at least two weeks salary to help them get by until government services are available. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday ordered $50 million set aside for loans to small businesses. Businesses with up to 100 employees can apply for a loan of up to $50,000. The loan is interest-free for one year.

Farm Share is also setting up drive-thru food sites specifically for hospitality industry workers, in addition to previously scheduled distributions in the coming week in Southwest Miami, Hialeah, Lauderdale Lakes and Little Haiti.

But Walsh worries the help won’t reach workers in time. Some nonprofits are gearing up for assistance. The United Way of Miami-Dade has launched the Miami Pandemic Response Fund with seed money from the Health Foundation of South Florida, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Miami Foundation, said spokeswoman Cristina Blanco. 

The agency estimates that 59 percent of local households struggle to meet daily needs.

“Basically they’re one step away from financial hardship. That one medical bill or issue with their car can send them into a tailspin,” she said. “We have businesses forced to reduce hours and workers not getting tips and potentially losing their jobs.”

Money from the fund can be used to pay for food, utilities and housing, she said. Donations can be made at portal.unitedwaymiami.org. Charity Navigator has also put together a list of reliable charities, available at www.charitynavigator.org.

But for workers like Thwaites, who was already living in a friend’s warehouse because of high rents in South Florida, finding help can seem overwhelming. He says most of his co-workers shuffle between stadiums and venues, depending on the season, going from Marlins Park to Hard Rock Stadium. Some work hockey games or tennis tournaments.

“Because the cost of living is relatively really high here, it's just hard,” he said. “When we're working, especially at the ballpark ... it's a decent form of living, but the rest of the year, the off-season, it's a lot harder.”

With his ninth season called off before it even started, Thwaites feels like he’s living in limbo.

“There’s not like a whole lot of options left for many of us,” he said. “It's not [like] well, I can go and apply for a job somewhere else. Nowhere else is hiring.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.