The worst storm in the Florida Keys in six decades left Hawks Cay Resort with extensive damage — and 260 employees who are now jobless.
On Oct. 13, the majority of workers at the resort on Duck Key, mile marker 61 oceanside, were let go via email. It’s been just over six weeks since Category 4 Hurricane Irma made landfall and destroyed parts of the 60-acre resort, among hundreds of other properties in the island chain.
“Our crew members are what make Hawks Cay Resort special. This decision was the most difficult one that we had to make,” Managing Director Sheldon Suga said in a statement Friday.
The resort, with a private beach, three pools, three restaurants and a marine center where guests can swim with dolphins, will not reopen until summer 2018, a representative told the Keynoter Friday. Therefore, the decision was made to let the majority of the staff go, she said.
One of those laid off who declined to be named said he felt terrible when he got the news and does not want to work there again if given the chance.
“The only communication I really had from them after I got back from evacuating was a phone call and it wasn’t “Hi, how are you?’ It was ‘Do you have any of our uniforms?’ I went, ‘Are you serious? My house was flooded and I’m not really worried if I have any of your uniforms.’ ”
He said most of his former coworkers, about 50 where he worked, have moved out of the area and most don’t plan on coming back.
Among other employees affected are 33 housekeepers, 21 cooks, 15 stewards, 14 servers, 14 recreation attendants and 13 engineers. Supervisory 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 Department of Economic Opportunity.
“We ensured crew members received hurricane pay up to Oct. 14,” Suga said. “With a reopening date still unknown, we had to give them notice.... We have and continue to make significant efforts to help our staff members find employment including both locally” and at other resorts in the U.S.
The Connecticut-based company HEI Hotels owns Hawks Cay and manages 70 hotels and resorts across the country. Workers who were laid off can reapply with Hawks Cay when it reopens, Suga said.
The Department of Economic Opportunity offers several programs to workers impacted by Irma, including disaster unemployment assistance. The deadline to apply is Oct. 31.
Hawks Cay was not the only Keys resort to sustain extensive damage. In Islamorada, the Islander Oceanside and Cheeca Lodge and Spa are closed for repairs. It’ll be months before either one reopens. Between the two, they employed hundreds of people.
Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in Monroe County, responsible for 54 percent of all jobs, according to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
The layoff email
Following is an excerpt of the email sent out to Hawks Cay Resort employees at 8:34 p.m. Oct. 13, a Friday night, from Jesse Stewart Jr., the resort’s human resources director.
Dear Hawks Cay Family/Crew,
I know that it has been a long time since I have sent you an update. I trust that all is well in your world. As you may have imagined, the day has come where our “Hurricane Pay” has come to an end. The majority of our staff shall be laid off effective October 15, 2017. You will be receiving a letter in the mail, it is the same as one you will receive via email which is referred to as a WARN Notice. It is to advise you that due to Hurricane Irma, the business has been closed and therefore you are being laid off as there is no work for you at this point in time.
This means that those of you that have not already found other employment and have not already Applied for Disaster Unemployment Assistance, you can do so now. For your information, the filing deadline has been extended for Disaster Unemployment Assistance to October 31, 2017.
October 14, 2017 will be recorded as your last day of employment at Hawks Cay Resort. That will also be the final day that you will be eligible for HEI benefits for those of you that participate in the program. You will receive a COBRA notice that will inform you that you are allowed to continue your benefits if you choose to pay for them at the rate that Hawks Cay has been paying with a modest administrative fee....
Regarding PTO, accrued PTO time will be paid in a lump sum in your final pay check. Be advised, I suggest that you spend it wisely.
The question we all want to know is, “when do you think the property will be able to reopen again?” The answer is that we don’t know, all I can tell you that it will be several months before the resort opens fully again. The plan is to open the Angler & Ale Restaurant first and then the Calm Water Spa. Thereafter I expect that we will be able to open the remainder of the resort in due time, but I wouldn’t bet on it being anytime soon....
Please see positions available at other properties that have expressed interest in Hawks Cay Crew Members....
Know that I/we wish you continued success and look forward to our future together providing,
Great Service, Great Stay!
Miami Herald reporter Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219