Keys resort Hawks Cay lays off 260 employees due to devastation from Hurricane Irma

Hawks Cay Resort in Islamorada. The resort suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irma and has laid of 260 employees until it reopens in summer 2018. Hawks Cay Resort

Nearly the entire staff at Hawks Cay Resort in Duck Key has been laid off, marking the first major employment casualties in the already-tight Keys job market following Hurricane Irma.

In a notice posted last Wednesday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, 260 employees have been laid off at Hawks Cay, a secluded 60-acre property that includes 427 villas and hotel rooms in the Middle Keys just south of Islamorada.

Workers received “hurricane pay” up to Oct. 14, before layoffs became effective Oct. 15, Sheldon Suga, vice president managing director of Hawks Cay, said in a statement. Because of the extensive damage left behind by Irma when she plowed the Middle and Lower Florida Keys on Sept. 10, the resort expects to be closed through mid- to late-summer 2018.

“This decision was the most difficult one that we had to make,” Suga said. “With a reopening date still unknown, we had to give them notice earlier [last] week.”

THIS DECISION WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT ONE THAT WE HAD TO MAKE. Sheldon Suga, vice president managing director of Hawks Cay

Among the employees affected are 33 housekeepers, 21 cooks, 15 stewards, 14 servers, 14 recreation attendants and 13 engineers. Super positions include the group sales manager, the human resources recruiting manager, the director of rooms and the assistant chief engineer, according to a letter the resort filed with the state.

Suga said the hotel is making “significant efforts” to help staff find employment locally and throughout the United States with parent company HEI Hotels and Resorts. He would not elaborate on what those efforts are and what hurricane pay it offered its workers prior to the layoffs. 

Workers who were laid off can reapply with Hawks Cay when it reopens, Suga said.

For its part, the Department of Economic Opportunity offers several programs to workers impacted by Irma, including disaster unemployment assistance and the federal Dislocated Worker Grant Program to help local boards offer temporary employment.

Worker retention in the Keys, particularly in the leading tourism industry, has long been an issue. Properties have struggled to find and keep hospitality workers, partly because of a shortage of affordable housing. Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in Monroe County, responsible for 54 percent of all jobs, according to the county’s Tourist Development Council.

Hurricane Irma, which hit the Middle and Lower Keys as a Category 4 storm, has exacerbated the worker shortage problem. That’s because most workers in the Middle and Lower Keys are locals, not commuters who come in from the mainland, and shuttle services only go as far as about Islamorada, said hotel expert Max Comess, an executive at Key West-based Johnson Resort Properties.

“The long-term impacts could be greatest in the Lower Keys, which depends largely on year-round employees … [and] temporary labor and foreign visa workers because of that shortage,” Comess said. “It will be interesting to see as recovery is underway, whether they build additional workforce housing as part of this recovery effort.”

Several large properties, including Cheeca Lodge & Spa and Guy Harvey Oceanside Resort in Islamorada, and Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, won’t open until at least early 2018. Properties that have opened, including Robbie’s in Islamorada, are taking on employees displaced from businesses that were shuttered because of the storm.

Some layoffs are likely to continue at closed resorts in the Keys, Comess said, though property-wide layoffs are most likely at hotels that don’t plan to reopen until after the winter high season. Hawks Cay has been the only one to issue a WARN notice so far.

“I would expect that these cases of massive layoffs will be somewhat isolated,” Comess said.

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