The happiest place on Earth has not been quite as joyful lately. The Walt Disney Company furloughed 100,000 people in April as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and many more contractors and adjacent employees have also been affected. Michael James Nuells is one of them.
Nuells has a particular specialty: managing large-scale spaces. As a contractor working with Disney, he served as a special events manager in the Parks, Experiences and Products division overseeing the technology and digital team.
"I was assigned to help manage the workplace management team for Disney," Nuells explained. "I dealt with about 1,500 to 1,800 employees in all of the West Coast division."
As events and crowd sizes dwindled further and further to contain the spread of COVID-19, he recognized that his job was at risk.
"On April 6, I was given word by my manager with Disney that my contract was being ended," he remembered. "I was only given, unfortunately, a four-day notice that my contract was being cut."
Nuells was on a 14-month contract with Disney. He was cut early, after a little more than 11 months. It came as he planned to transition from work as an outside contractor to a full-time role within the company, an opportunity that vanished with the closures.
"They didn't want me to take it personally, but their hands were tied," he said.
It's a difficult time to be someone whose livelihood is tied to people being in physical spaces. That is the greatest barrier to Nuells returning to work.
"There might some interest in having me come back," he said. "But my role and my work is very specific." "My job consists of, physically, people being in offices and being in the Disney properties," Nuells said.
As the uncertainty of his career prospects mixed with the financial realities of losing his income, Nuells, like so many Americans, filed for unemployment benefits. But, he has yet to receive those funds: California, his home state, reports that the system is overwhelmed
"I was approved for my unemployment within four days," he said. However, he added, "I have not yet received a penny of unemployment."
He recounted his efforts to receive more information about his account but to no avail.
"I've called repeatedly, every day," Nuells said. "I've not been able to even speak with anyone to see what's going on."
He said he's called the unemployment system at least 300 to 400 times.
"It's been a horrible situation. I'm living off savings."
To get a handle on his employment outlook, he is examining just where his industry is heading now that in-person events and in-person spaces are no longer widely accessible. He anticipates large-scale events will change drastically.
"We're going to see a lot more events that will be online or from home," he said. This includes "the big events, the Coachellas, the live events, the musical concerts that we all love going to."
"I don't see those being on the same level as they have been. It's going to be a new tradition and a new normal for us in terms of how these events are planned and how they're going to be executed," he predicted.
As for how Nuells will adjust personally?
"I know that my work is going to have to shift, and it will. I'm going to be doing even more virtual events and virtual meetings and smaller events," he explained. "I'm just trying to look at a way to capitalize on my work and figure out the new normal and get on trend with that."
During this period of self-reflection, Nuells still makes time for self-care. He's been exercising and has picked up journaling as a way to sort through the mixed emotions of this difficult period in history. He loved talking to loved ones before the pandemic but video calls have never been like this before.
"To the point that I'm on with 10 people at a time and everyone's talking over each other and yelling about their day and being stressed being under the same roof with their spouses and kids and working from home. So that's been a blast," he said. "It just reminds me that I'm not in this alone.
He's even picked up an unexpected hobby.
"I've now been stuck inside so long, I'm at the point where I'm playing video games and I've never really done that since I was a kid," Nuells joked.
"Reading the news every day can be very depressing," he lamented, but, "video games now, it's helping keep my mind clear and it's been a great distraction."
Although the past several weeks have been difficult, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Nuells. Disney Parks are reopening in California on July 17, and though Nuells has not been called back to work, he has been approached about taking a new position with the company. Those plans are still in the works, but he said it is encouraging to hear and he is thankful for the opportunity.