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Pandemic Theme Park Layoffs Make Way for Hiring Frenzy

We are “having challenges to find staff to fill positions that need to be filled,” one studio parks and attractions executive says

During the early days of the pandemic, studio theme park employees were among the first in the entertainment world to lose jobs. But now, as the country opens up with restrictions relaxed, the parks are scrambling to bring back their former workers and hire new ones.

“Like all attractions, theme parks and recreations around theworld, we were definitely impacted by the pandemic,” Jenefer Brown, executive vice president and head of Lionsgate Global Live, Interactive and Location-Based Entertainment, told TheWrap. “The good news is that we’re re-hiring.”

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However, Brown said, restaffing is not as simple as just calling everybody back to work at Lionsgate Entertainment World on Hengqin Island, China, as well as the many individual movie-themed parks that Lionsgate provides across the globe through its partners.

She said many former employees have moved on to new jobs or other professions, and those returning have the added duties of handling COVID cleaning and safety protocols, which have also added new job categories. It’s even harder, she said, to find the dancers, singers, acrobats and other performers for live show on theme park campuses and for various attractions.

“There have actually been a lot of discussions around the world about this…It’s not just about local hires, but the theme park and attractions (business) is really global,” Brown said. “If you think about the talent for the shows at some of the parks and attractions, we look all around the world for those cast members.

“During the pandemic period, many people returned to their home country…for those specialty roles we hire outside of the local market, and we are definitely searching for talent.”

NBCUniversal recently announced that the company is “casting a wide net” to fill more than 2,000 jobs atUniversal Studios Hollywood, including full-time, part-time and seasonal positions in many areas, such as food preparation and service, entertainment production, guest relations and park services. Universal Studios Hollywood reopened on April 16.

In addition, Tom Schroder, vice president of corporate communications for Universal Parks & Resorts, told TheWrap the company is hiring thousands of workers “on both coasts” as the summer season begins. Nearly all the team members that had been furloughed from Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood “are back to work and have been so for months,” he said.

Schroder declined to provide the numbers of furloughs and rehires, but said “like any business in our industry, we had to make some hard decisions. We’re just glad to have our team members back with us.”

He added, “We expect our business to return to pre-COVID levels and will manage both our operations and staff accordingly. We have confidence in our business and our industry.”

Schroder said the company has not been affected by service workers who have chosen not to return to their posts even as pandemic protocols loosen. “We always work to be competitive when compared to other employers in our industry,” he said. “Recent examples of that include our increase to a base start rate of $15 (per hour) at Universal Orlando and a team member referral program with incentives at Universal Studios Hollywood.” Pay at Universal Studios Hollywood was already at $15 an hour.

In one of the industry’s earliest and most extreme examples of cutbacks, Disney announced in April 2020 that it would stop paying 100,000 workers, most of whom were “cast members” working at Disneyland Resorts in Anaheim, Disney World in Orlando and other Disney-owned theme parks worldwide. In late December, Disney reported that 28,000 layoffs would be permanent.

A Disney company representative declined to comment on whether furloughed and laid off employees have been, or are being, rehired now that Disney parks and attractions have returned to lowered-capacity reopenings, on varying schedules depending on local COVID-19 protocols. Disneyland reopened at 25% capacity on April 30 for California guests only and plans to open at full capacity on June 15 with no geographic limits.

However, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said during a May 13 earnings call that Disneyland was “able to quickly recall” more than 10,000 furloughed cast members and train them to operate under California health and safety requirements.

“We’ve had about 80% of our cast members return that we’ve asked to return,” Chapek said during the call. “And obviously, one of the (main) factors for us to continue to increase capacity is to continue to get more and more cast members back. It thrills us to be able to do that.” 

Chris Duarte, vice president of Workers United Local 50, which oversees food and beverage service workers within the park at Disneyland Resorts in Anaheim, said Disneyland is in the process of recalling people back from furloughs and layoffs. He added that most union workers have negotiated layoff protection by which they would be called back first.

“We know that some people are not going to return because they’ve moved on for various reasons to other employment, or moved,” Duarte told TheWrap. “But we have a wealth of people that are on layoffs still,  or furloughed. We have not encountered any inability to fill positions.”

Diane Haithman