Carolyn Puckett last month renewed her security guard license upon hearing that major cruise companies were planning to resume sailing from the island by the end of the summer. She took the initiative to ensure she still had the qualifications to work, she said.
But the return of cruising has since been delayed to October by pandemic concerns.
In some ways, Puckett is in the same situation as the millions of people laid off and out of work because of the coronavirus.
The difference is, Puckett’s job sailed off into the Gulf of Mexico when the last cruise ship left Galveston — and there’s no sign of when passenger liners will return.
Puckett, 22, worked as a security guard for Terminal Security Solutions. On cruise days, she would screen people for contraband and check IDs as passengers moved through the terminal to the ships.
“It was nice,” she said. “They were good people. It was a good company to work for.” But she hasn’t worked since March and has heard little from her employers about when or whether she might be invited back.
Puckett has filed for unemployment and moved back in with her mother and step-father, she said. She’s also got a part-time job at the city of Galveston and is pursuing a bartender license.
She liked her job at the port, but she’s not sure whether she’ll return to it even when the ships come back.
“It’s a loss of consistency,” Puckett said. “I’m the kind of person where if I have a job I really like, I want to stay there a long time, so that my resume isn’t clouded by gaps in employment.”
No cruise ship has left the Port of Galveston since March 12 because of the coronavirus. A combination of government shutdowns and industry delays have led to all cruises in the United States being canceled until Oct. 1, at the earliest.
There’s been no official announcement about when cruise ships will return, or what the cruise experience will be. It’s expected the number of passengers on cruise ships will be reduced, and that COVID-19 screening procedures will be expanded.
The cancellations killed hundreds of cruises planned from the Port of Galveston and forced port leaders to cut revenue projections by $14 million.
Port officials said the public entity could weather the pandemic, for now, by using savings and by continuing to draw non-cruise business such as cargo.
But for hundreds of workers not employed by the port directly, the cruise ships’ departure left a hole in the economy that won’t be filled when people return to beaches, hotels and restaurants.
The cancellations hit people working in the terminals and on the docks, said Mike Lopez, second vice-president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 20, whose 400 dockworker members provide manual labor at the port.
“It’s a lot of man hours, a lot of income that’s been lost,” Lopez said.
The disappeared cruises haven’t dried up all the union work at the port. Union members still are picking up jobs from cargo ships carrying fruit or windmill components. But those jobs are a little less desirable than the cruise terminal jobs, where dockworkers help load and unload baggage for cruise guests, Lopez said.
The cruise jobs are so desirable that senior union members often show up at the union hall already clad in Hawaiian shirts — an indicator they’re planning to work in the passenger terminals.
“The cruise terminals, they’re more lucrative jobs,” Lopez said. “You’re moving bags, but you’re moving at your own pace. If you’re lucky, you’re getting a few tips here and there.”
The decrease in work also puts other pressure on union members. To fully qualify for health insurance, union members need to log at least 1,000 hours a year working on the docks.
When there are fewer jobs to go around, there’s more pressure on people to show up early and often to get their time in, Lopez said.
HOPELESS IN GALVESTON
For others, the loss of cruise ships has left little hope.
Charles Franklin, owner of Galveston Express, a limousine and shuttle service, laid off his 11 employees and allowed the leases of half of his company’s shuttle buses to lapse because of the suspended sailings.
The company was heavily dependent on shuttling people between Houston airports and the port, Franklin said. While there are some other peak seasons, including around the times of high school proms, there was nothing to make up for the cruises, he said.
“We draw 99 percent of our revenue from customers that are taking a cruise,” Franklin said. The cancellations came at an even larger expense than the loss of future revenue, Franklin said. The company also had to refund $30,000 in reservations to people whose cruises were canceled.
“The economy for us went backwards,” he said. “It wasn’t just a shutdown, it was money we had already brought in.”
Drivers aren’t the only ones hurt by the shutdown. In May, a group of parking companies appealed to a federal court for a break on tariffs they typically pay to shuttle people from parking lots onto port property.
The port and the companies met in court May 29 and agreed to work together on a compromise, according to court records.
Cheryl Tambanillo’s store, The Cruise Stop, is inside Galveston’s downtown bus terminal at the corner of 25th Street and The Strand. The store sells to visitors who walk through the city’s historic downtown, but its main market was serving the cruise ships.
The store offers a luggage-holding service for people who arrive downtown too early to board a ship, or who want to spend some time on the island before leaving for home. It also stocks snack foods from other countries to sell to the foreign cruise ship employees, Tambanillo said.
Even though cruise ships lingered in the port after the March shutdown, ship workers weren’t able to go ashore. Tambanillo, like everyone else, has no idea when her customers will be back.
“You’re always checking what’s going on,” Tambanillo said. “I’m pretty sure they’re going to try to do it as safely and as cautiously as they can because I think it will only take one outbreak on the ship before they get shut down again.”