Brookfield Zoo employees who experienced months-long furloughs earlier this year when the park closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic have another work stoppage on the horizon as 2020 draws to a close.
On Dec. 9, the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo on 216 acres of land at 8400 31st St. owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, announced that it will place 40 employees on layoff/furlough status, effective Jan. 1, 2021.
The announcement added that the Chicago Zoological Society planned to recall all of those placed on hiatus on or before March 1.
In October, officials announced that Brookfield Zoo would close for the months of January and February as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on and that only essential staff would be employed during that time.
“The lay-off/furloughed include staff who are not considered critically essential to support the minimum operations of the organization during the zoo’s two-month closure, while keeping staff employed who ensure the health and welfare of the zoo’s animal population, maintenance and protection of the buildings and grounds, and other critical operations,” the statement released on Nov. 9 read.
It has been a trying year for employees at Brookfield Zoo, who in addition to the unexpected furloughs and layoff during the pandemic have seen other significant changes as the Chicago Zoological Society attempts to contain costs.
In February, the zoo outsourced all of its foodservice and retail sales operations to Denver-based Service Systems Associates (SSA), a changed that impacted about 60 full-time and more than 300 seasonal employees.
After Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order as COVID-19 spread, Brookfield Zoo closed its doors to the public on March 19 and did not open again until July 1.
In addition to those employed by SSA, the Chicago Zoological Society in April laid off or furloughed about one-third of its employees and then in June laid off 50 more employees.
Some, but not all of those employees returned to work when the zoo reopened its doors as the governor eased restrictions during the summer. But in September, SSA announced it would be letting go more than 200 of its employees in a mass-layoff notice submitted to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
“We value the commitment and hard work of every one of our talented employees,” the zoo’s Dec. 9 announcement said. “However, like so many other employers across the nation who depend on customers, these difficult decisions were necessary. We continue to assure the continued care and welfare of the animals in our care, as well as the safety of our guests, staff, volunteers, and members.”
The extended closure resulting from the 2020 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Brookfield Zoo’s bottom line. As of Dec. 10, just 720,000 people had walked through the gates, according to zoo spokeswoman Sondra Katzen.
As a result, Brookfield Zoo will end 2020 with less than half the number of visitors it normally sees in any given year.
In 2019, Brookfield Zoo drew 1,999,144 visitors.