Why SeaWorld's Cuts in Staff Hours Is No Suprise To Me

SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. is cutting hours for 18,000 part-time and seasonal workers, in a move that will allow it to skirt provisions of the new Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and save millions from not providing healthcare coverage to those employees at 11 parks around the country.
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SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. is cutting hours for 18,000 part-time and seasonal workers, in a move that will allow it to skirt provisions of the new Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and save millions from not providing healthcare coverage to those employees at 11 parks around the country. As the author of a book on SeaWorld, It doesn't surprise me a bit.

SeaWorld did not cite Obamacare as the reason for reducing the cap on part-time work, from 32 hours to 28 hour per week, in a cost-cutting switch first reported by the Orlando Sentinel. But to many observers, the reason was clear: Starting in 2015, companies with 50 or more full-time workers must provide coverage. "Full-time" is defined as an average of 30 hours a week.

SeaWorld is certainly not the first marquis-name company to cut schedules and thus slide in under the 30-hour threshold. It's easy to see why. The entertainment Goliath was facing the legal obligation of buying coverage for 18,000 workers at a cost of, say, $400-per-month each. Then SeaWorld just dodged a looming $86.4 million-a-year bullet.

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) blamed Obama rather than SeaWorld in a letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The Secretary is visiting Orlando on Friday, and Rubio suggested she meet with SeaWorld employees who had their workweek cut.

"I trust that you will be moved by the experiences these individuals will share with you, just as I have been moved by my many meetings with Floridians who have been similarly impacted by ObamaCare," Rubio wrote. "Especially for families living paycheck-to-paycheck, cutting their hours and income is exactly how ObamaCare devastates middle class Americans."

SeaWorld itself is sailing on stormy financial seas, having lost nearly $16 million in the second quarter of this year. Stock value has tumbled nearly 20 percent since its high-profile IPO in April, and attendance fell by nine percent.

I have investigated and written about SeaWorld over the past three years, so I was not terribly surprised to see the company take out its financial woes on its own employees (competitor Universal will not cut hours; Disney is undecided) though I do think it's regrettable, to put it mildly.

But two things came to my mind when I heard the news: 1) This double-whammy cut in hours and benefits is emblematic of SeaWorld's long-running indifferent treatment of workers and, 2) If SeaWorld is cutting corners with personnel, then what is going on backstage, where the animals live?

I've written a good deal about these issues, including in Death at SeaWorld, which follows the stories of four trainers at the Orlando park who, one by one, left for better, more fulfilling experiences and became strong voices in the fight against orca captivity. They have also spoken out against conditions at SeaWorld that are unhealthy and dangerous for animals, and the trainers who handle them.

Here are just some of the poor labor-relations skills displayed by the company documented in the book:

Low Pay, High Risk:
Trainers at SeaWorld must really like their work, because they will never get rich doing it. Back in 1989, when Jeff Ventre was a talented "hotdogger," riding upon, being pushed around by and leaping from whales and dolphins, he received $9-per-hour, or $16.95 in 2013 dollars. Given that Jeff was a big part of the star attraction, Shamu Stadium and its pact-them-in performers, the killer whales, it seems rather low, especially given the risk of injuries, which often went unreported: many trainers tried to hide their pain, so as not to look cowardly or unskilled.

For example, from the book:

Carol Ray held "Baby Shamu" backstage in a side tank and as she reached in to pet the young orca's tongue, the whale's jaw popped down on her hand. She sustained a gash on top of her right hand, and on the same location of her palm. It was swollen and throbbing. Carol pretended nothing had happened. Despite the pain, she smiled at the audience and continued to work Kalina from the stage. She periodically dipped her hand in the water to wash off the blood. She could not grip anything with her right hand, not even a small fish. The other trainers spotted blood on her hand. They knew something had happened, but they put on their game faces and ignored it. The show had to go on.

And this:

Katina gave John an extra push and he sailed toward the smooth, wet platform, chest first, arms outstretched. The idea was to slide across the concrete on his belly from one end of the stage to the other, fly off the far end and slip back into the water like a penguin. But something went wrong. John launched from Katina's nose, but heard a loud whack as his hip smashed into the edge of the concrete stage. "No big deal," he said to the other trainers, trying to laugh the incident off as a rookie's mistake. Fortunately it was a Friday: He could take the weekend to recuperate. John hobbled around in pain for the rest of that day at work. He explained later to friends, "I decided it was better to suck it up and not say anything, than risk being sidelined from the show and labeled a whiner. "

Gender disparity: Things may be better now, though most top executives are still male, but back when Samantha Berg was a low-level trainer at Shamu Stadium, in 1992 (she began work in 1990 at $7.50-per-hour, or $13.40 today), she accidentally stumbled on a list of top senior trainers and their salaries. As I wrote:

There was only one female on the list, Kelly Flaherty Clark. Samantha, an ardent women's libber after growing up in New York, idolized Kelly. She was clearly heading for a leadership position at SeaWorld. She was also the lowest paid senior staffer. Sam was offended and outraged, and she delivered the news to Kelly in front of other colleagues. Kelly was mortified, not about her low salary, but about Sam spilling the beans in front of everyone. Someone reported the incident. Sam was interrogated and threatened with termination. Nervous and worried, she knew SeaWorld could make it very hard for her to work at any other theme park in the country, with or without animals.

Racial discrimination and Sexual Harassment: This problem plagued SeaWorld Florida as recently as 2010, when the Department of Labor hit the park with an administrative settlement for racial discrimination in hiring practices. As described in the book:

Two months after (Orlando trainer) Dawn Brancheau died, the Labor Department cited SeaWorld parks for employment records that showed a "disparate impact" on African American and Hispanic applicants. As a result, the company was required to contact nearly1,000 qualified applicants who had been denied employment and either offer them a job or a portion of the modest settlement mandated by the government. Equally shocking was the rampant sexual harassment that allegedly went on, as reported by the head of human resources in 2010, Michelle Dillard, who blew the whistle on this practice. In her sworn affidavit as part of a lawsuit against SeaWorld, she claimed to have been forced to resign due to an untenable working environment. Months later, she rescinded her claims, left Florida and could not be located: A senior trainer, Adam Scott, entered Dillard's office and unleashed a dark secret: "There's a lot of quid pro quo sexual harassment going on around here. It makes me extremely uncomfortable," he reportedly said. Male senior trainers were demanding sexual favors from junior female trainers, "in return for more 'water time' with the whales," according to Dillard. She opened an investigation, grilling staff and confirming that "indeed, there were severe, pervasive sexual improprieties committed against the junior trainers," she wrote in her affidavit. "Two male senior trainers/supervisors were terminated," though they left with "hefty severance."

As for cutting corners and its impact on the animals, it's a fair question. Are orcas, for example, being fed less salmon and more smelt? What about conditions in their confinements?

I have reported on crumbling pools at SeaWorld, and on the male orca Nakai, who sliced off a chunk of his chin on some undisclosed part of the facilities at Shamu Stadium in San Diego.

Mostly, however, this is a human story - though it does cast light on the way SeaWorld treats the very resources that keep its empire afloat. I can't help but think that there's someone working part-time, selling beer, perhaps, or plush-toys, who has early-stage cancer but now won't find out until it's too late.

And that, should it happen, would be yet another preventable death at SeaWorld.

David Kirby is author of Death at SeaWorld - Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity - more info is at www.deathatseaworld.com

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