As hundreds of visitors cancel their trips to Spokane, local agencies and governments have had to cut back or freeze hiring to make it through the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.
Visit Spokane, which is partially funded through hotel taxes and works to bring events and tourism into the community, laid off 20 of its 28 employees Monday.
Kate Hudson, public relations manager for the organization, said the past two weeks have been devastating for Visit Spokane and all organizations and businesses that depend on tourism.
“Our head of finance has gone over our budget, 50 different ways, 50 different times,” Hudson said. “This is definitely the worst moment in Visit Spokane’s history.”
She said the organization hopes to rehire the staff it laid off once the tourism economy is able to restart.
“I know we’ll get through this. We’ll rebuild,” she said. “It’s just really hard to see through the weeds, but we’ll come out on the other side.”
The Public Facilities District, which owns the First Interstate Center for the Arts and the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, has lost millions in revenue from canceled events at those facilities but has not had to layoff any employees.
Stephanie Curran, chief executive of the district, said the organization has implemented a hiring freeze and has not planned for layoffs, but might need to reduce staff depending on how long community events are postponed.
“The longer this goes on, the more precarious this will get for us,” she said.
She said staff has been able to make progress rebooking many events, but many workers will be on paid sick leave starting Wednesday to comply with the governor’s stay-in-place order.
Hotelier Walt Worthy closed all but one of his hotels last week, leaving more than 1,000 in the local hotel industry out of work.
Local governments have abstained from the extensive layoffs reported in the private sector amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but some already have limited hiring and tightened spending.
Spokane County, Spokane Valley and the city of Spokane have thousands of employees and have yet to report a reduction in staffing or any plans to carry one out.
Still, local leaders are only in the early stages of assessing the economic impact of COVID-19 on their budgets, which they warn could be severe.
Spokane County has implemented a hiring freeze, except for two executive positions. The county was looking for a new human resources director as well, but current resource director Tim Hansen, who was planning to retire, recently rescinded his resignation to continue assisting the county.
County spokesman Jared Webley said county leaders have been focused on getting through the current crisis and had not discussed layoffs.
County Commissioner Al French, who is in self-quarantine after recent travel, said governments need to start taking precautions now to avoid large future cuts and layoffs.
“It becomes a matter to what services are critical and how you meet that need,” French said. “You need to start (planning) now. If you wait until the end of the year, it’s too late.”
French said local governments might have to choose between dipping into emergency reserves and layoffs.
The city of Spokane has not laid off any employees, but has made drastic shifts in its workforce to encourage employees to work from home and altered schedules to accommodate child care needs.
“There have been adjustments all over the city,” said Brian Coddington, a city spokesman.
When it closed the My Spokane 311 service desk last week, for example, the city moved the entire operation from City Hall into the homes of its employees, who still are taking calls and answering requests. More than 200 employees are connected to the city’s network remotely, which is the majority of City Hall staff.
As it focuses its efforts on the COVID-19 response, Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration has instituted a hiring freeze on a case-by-case basis. The ongoing search for a director of Neighborhood and Business Services has been placed on hold, but given the current public health emergency, officials are moving quickly to hire a new director of emergency management.
“That’s an essential service that needs to be filled, but in other cases like neighborhood services, that’s going to be something that has to wait,” Coddington said.
The city of Spokane Valley, which has fewer than 100 budgeted positions, was one of the few local governments that did not lay off employees during the 2008 recession. City spokesman Jeff Kleingartner said the city currently is not considering a hiring freeze or layoffs.
Other government agencies, such as the Spokane County Library District, have not planned layoffs either. County Library District spokeswoman Jane Baker said library staff still have plenty of work to do while closed to the public, including ordering more books in anticipation of re-opening, cleaning and working to increase their online offerings.
“There are a lot of behind-the-scene things that happen in the library that still happen even if we’re not open to the public,” Baker said. “We’re also increasing our online offerings and doing what we can for people at home using the library virtually.”
While many city services are essential and continue uninterrupted – such as solid waste collection and public safety – the Spokane Public Library has been forced to close the doors of every branch.
Still, the library has not made layoffs. Staff members have been focusing on digital offerings, like the spring reading challenge announced last week. Prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order on Monday, the library also had explored how it could safely provide physical materials to the public through such means as curbside pickup.
“Our landscape and environment seems to be changing daily, as far as what would be appropriate or safe service,” said Andrew Chanse, director of the Spokane Public Library.
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