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Cutbacks and hiring difficulties: the COVID aftermath

Restrictions are easing and attractions are opening back up. So why are some struggling to find enough staff?

Opinion
Staff cleaning at Six Flags Over Texas

By Lance HartScreamscape

2020 was a difficult year for attractions as many found themselves unexpectedly closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, in 2021, we are seeing a whole slew of new problems and unexpected side-effects, as attractions begin to reopen and the virus is in decline. 

For many attractions, the immediate story now is one we’ve already been seeing for a while from other US industries.

Companies are facing hiring difficulties. They are simply struggling to find enough new employees to fill their open positions. The number of vaccinated citizens is on the rise daily. To the point that some safety restrictions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing are starting to be rolled back. But it seems that it is still extremely difficult to hire new employees to fill the gap. 

There are a number of factors behind this in America:

Low pay

After an uncertain year, it is clear that few people are willing to work for lower than average pay anymore. This has become especially problematic in the restaurant industry, where labour laws allowed many restaurant workers to get paid at less than minimum-wage levels in exchange for the hope of making up for it in tips.

Couple-at-theme-park hiring difficulties

Combine this with a situation where many former employees were laid off from their jobs and allowed to collect a higher than normal unemployment check from the government for the past year and we find a number of potential employees who have suddenly been paid better than they ever have for the past year. All while staying at home and staying officially unemployed.

The current employment relief bill in effect sends out a $300 check each week to those currently signed up. This will remain in effect through to 6 September 2021. 

By comparison, before COVID, the average new theme park employee probably started off somewhere between $8 and $9 per hour. At the end of a 40 hour work week, that comes to only about $320 to $360 a week. And that’s before the various taxes (state and federal) and social services fees reduce their check by about 15-20%.

Staff member cleaning hiring difficulties

Plus, that doesn’t even count transportation expenses the employee would occur getting to work and back, five days a week. So, it’s clear why someone would opt to keep their employment checks coming for as long as possible.

At this point, the only way any business can combat its hiring difficulties is to raise the pay it offers. As well as raising other benefits, to encourage those looking to work to come their way. In today’s world, whoever offers the best financial package has the upper hand. That makes it a job-seekers market, as nearly every company is seeking to hire right now. 

Resentment

There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this. But I believe there may be some resentment at play when looking at why certain companies are facing hiring difficulties. This time last year, the news was full of stories about how various companies treated their employees in the early days of COVID.

We all read stories about how some companies shed almost their entire staff. Often without warning, without benefits, and without any financial aid programs.

There are a number of people out there who are simply not willing to return to a job at an old employer who may have shed them without a second thought in the early days of the pandemic

Meanwhile, we also read stories about how other companies were able to find ways to keep their staff on the books. Or, even if they were forced to furlough them temporarily, they found a way to at least keep paying for their medical insurance benefits, or set in motion other benefits programs to make sure those who were most in need were not forgotten or going without essentials.

As we struggle to return to normal, there are a number of people out there who are simply not willing to return to a job at an old employer who may have shed them without a second thought in the early days of the pandemic.

As I mentioned before, this is a job-seekers market. Companies who made the news for treating their employees better than others during the pandemic will find that kind of goodwill is benefiting them now as they seek to re-staff their businesses back to full capacity levels. 

Job conditions

Let’s be honest for a moment here. Clearly, all jobs are not made equal. There are certain positions that require workers to be on their feet and working at a high pace for 6 to 8 hours, sometimes longer, and sometimes without a break.

By comparison, there are also many jobs out there that require little in the way of physical labour. For example, jobs that place workers in comfortable air-conditioned environments, seated in comfy chairs for the day.

Attendant checking child's seatbelt at Moreys Piers Jump Around Kiddie Ride Hiring difficulties

Many of those easy-going jobs often pay better than some of the more back-breaking labour positions. Not everyone is qualified to work every kind of job available out there, of course. But those seeking employment are definitely going to be looking for better jobs than before. Perhaps even new jobs, ones that could lead to even better roles in the future.

After all, how many people are likely to opt for a slower-paced indoor job at an office that closes for weekends and holidays, rather than one standing in the hot sun for 40-60 hours a week all summer long, where working weekends and holidays is also required, often without overtime or special holiday pay increase.

Hiring difficulties become apparent

Rather than paying better wages over the years to hire local workers, too many parks and attractions have been relying on foreign labour worker visa programs to fill their numbers for the busy summer season. But ever since the arrival of COVID-19, those kinds of foreign labour programs have been put on indefinite hold.

This is another major reason why parks are struggling with hiring difficulties as they try to fill their labour rosters.

The stories are just now starting to hit, as many parks open this month and find themselves short-staffed. Carowinds announced it would have to delay the previously announced opening of its waterpark for a few extra weeks because it was focused on trying to staff the main theme park.

By contrast, Dixie Landin’ says it has made the choice to keep the amusement side closed for the entire 2021. This is so that it can focus on keeping the Blue Bayou waterpark fully staffed for the summer.

When Cedar Point opened this season, news headlines reported social media posts from guests visiting a park in chaos. There were too many closed rides and too many closed food stands due to the park being short-staffed. Some of the longest queues were full of hungry guests just trying to get something to eat or drink. 

Finding savings elsewhere

The clear solution to these hiring difficulties may be to simply increase wages and benefits, to the point that working at a theme park is a desirable job once again.

However, I also know that many parks are looking to keep a solid grip on their budgets. Especially after finding ways to survive through the 2020 season, where many were not able to open at all. So, if labour costs are going to rise, parks and attractions will need to trim budgets elsewhere. 

In the case of Six Flags, the company announced that it planned on retiring about 15 attractions across the chain before the 2021 season.

Specifically, Six Flags is targeting rides and attractions with high operational costs and those with high maintenance costs, as well as attractions with low guest satisfaction numbers. The more of those boxes ticked, the more likely an attraction could find itself on the chopping block.

Thus far, this has resulted in a few obvious “problem” attractions getting the axe. But some older classics, like Ferris wheels or other hard to maintain rides, may now be on the way out. Plus, American theme parks are continuing to shed ageing water rides due to their high maintenance costs.

Meeting expectations

We may soon see a number of parks use their hiring difficulties to their benefit. This could be by opting to keep certain attractions closed for the season. Or perhaps only opening some attractions on busy weekends instead of making them available daily throughout the summer.

Some of these closures could be entirely optional. Meanwhile, others could present themselves as parks opting to avoid paying to fix costly maintenance issues as they arise. They may simply keep the affected attractions closed for the remainder of the season with the goal of adding the repair costs into the following year’s budget. 

grandfather-grandson-bumper-cars

Yes, there is pent up demand right now from the general public to return to theme parks and other attractions. But the demand is also still there for a quality experience. And guests will want their expectations to be met.

If attractions do not meet these expectations, the general public may opt to find a new form of entertainment. Theme parks and major attractions aren’t going to get by this year by just operating on autopilot. This season will certainly be an interesting one to watch and learn from, as we see how things shape up and who fails to pass muster. 

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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