Polk County’s unemployment rate slow to bounce back due to pandemic’s impact on tourism

Florida Unemployment

DAVENPORT, Fla. (WFLA) – The continued loss of jobs at Orlando-area theme parks has Polk County lagging behind the rest of Tampa Bay in joblessness, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Polk County has Florida’s fourth-highest unemployment rate at 13.2% as of July, behind Osceola, Orange and Miami-Dade counties.

It’s an improvement from 19% in May. The report shows Florida’s unemployment rate at 11.3% in July.

“Fifty or sixty percent of the people that live here probably work in that industry,” said Kelly Callihan, Davenport city manager.

Davenport is a roughly 20-minute drive to Walt Disney World, its proximity to that, and other theme parks, leaves it vulnerable to a pandemic that hit the tourism and hospitality industries hardest.

“I laugh when people say ‘You got to get out and get a job.’ How do you get a job when those jobs aren’t open?” asked Robert Nobrega, of Davenport.

Nobrega lost his job at a Disney-area restaurant in March.

This summer, he came to 8 On Your Side after he reported someone changed the banking information on his unemployment account.

He argued it cost him more than $3,000.

“This past Saturday, after 50 some odd days, I finally got that money back which I’m very thankful for,” he said.

Now, he tells 8 On Your Side, he receives $95 a week in unemployment benefits.

Because he receives less than $100 a week, he does not qualify for the $400 a week in federal benefits.

Nobrega, who has underlying health conditions including asthma, says he is thankful he is able to stay with his parents, or else he’d be homeless.

“It’s really scary as far as living in a tourism area such as Davenport, being close to Disney, Universal, SeaWorld in general, and all those job opportunities there are not open right now and they’re not going to be open for a very long time,” he said.

“Polk County is cheaper to live here than it is Orange or Osceola. A lot of the folks, they live here and then commute up to the Orlando area to work,” said Callihan.

Callihan said other local businesses, including manufacturers, saw their contract work with major theme parks drop during the pandemic.

However, he has seen signs of improvement.

“Some of our residents say that they’ve been called back. And they’re gonna start allowing more people in the parks. The traffic’s increased,” said Callihan.

Universal Orlando recently announced another round of layoffs.

Last week, furloughed Walt Disney World employees received an email saying their furlough would be extended “until further notice,” union representatives confirm.

Disney is paying furloughed employees’ weekly benefits contributions during the furlough period.

First page of email sent to furloughed Disney employees

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