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Brookfield Zoo lays off workers amid coronavirus outbreak

The zoo furloughed a third of its workforce Saturday, citing “unanticipated and urgent financial pressures” in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Lions Titus and Brutus, 4-year-old siblings, arrived at Brookfield Zoo on March 17.
Lions Titus and Brutus, 4-year-old siblings, arrived at Brookfield Zoo on March 17.
Provided file photo

The Brookfield Zoo on Saturday furloughed a third of its workforce, citing “unanticipated and urgent financial pressures” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The move affects workers in every department at the zoo, said Sondra Katzen, spokeswoman for the Chicago Zoological Society, a nonprofit that manages the zoo.

“The lay-offs included staff who are not considered critically essential to support the minimum operations of the organization, 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 support system and functions,” said Katzen.

Brookfield Zoo now has “practically no earned revenue stream available” since closing March 19, according to Katzen, who said furloughed staff members will continue to receive medical benefits and can also file for unemployment

Keriann Ballanco, a keeper in the zoo’s primate department, said she and her husband are both applying for unemployment benefits. He was furloughed from his job as a manager at a downtown restaurant and is now looking for work to help cover their rent and student loans – though they’ll likely still need additional income to cover all their bills.

“It’s definitely been really hard,” said Ballanco. “Once my husband lost his job, I figured we would at least have my income for the foreseeable future, because I figured I was an essential employee.”

Ballanco’s husband had lined up a job at a restaurant on a military base in South Korea prior to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, but now it’s uncertain when they’ll be able to make the move. Though Ballanco’s last day at the zoo was slated for May 23, she likely won’t work there another day.

“I was off the day the furloughs were enacted, so I’m only allowed to collect my things and return my badge on Monday, but I can’t spend any time with the animals,” she said. “My career is my passion and it’s hard knowing I’ll likely never work with those animals again.

“It was just incredibly sudden and definitely not the way I imagined leaving my job at Brookfield.”

While it’s unclear how long the furlough will last, Katzen said the zoological society “hopes it will be resolved soon.” As the zoological society reels from the financial fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, Katzen noted that executives have all offered to take pay cuts as they chart a path forward.

“[The Chicago Zoological Society] has a preparedness team that has been meeting daily and planning for some time in anticipation of the pandemic extending a number of months,” said Katzen. “As new information is disseminated and the situation changes, the team remains responsive to the information being communicated by state and federal government agencies and other trustworthy sources.”

For now, the zoological society is applying for loans through the federal coronavirus relief package, accepting online donations and asking current zoo members to renew their membership to “help alleviate some of the financial pressures.