NOTE: This story is the first of a three-part series called Rebound Ready, which looks at the pandemic’s economic and employment impact on the Orange County Convention Center. Part 2 dives specifically into the financial aspects and the efforts to return to normal. 

ORLANDO, Fla. — One year ago, Jeanne Tsoulas walked away from the job she loved.

“It makes me sad, because I really loved it. I don’t want to look for a new job,” Tsoulas said. “I knew what I was doing. I was good at it, and I don’t want to have to start over again.”

It was not her choice.

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“As we were setting up, my manager got a call that the guys have to tear it down,” Tsoulas said.

Like millions of Floridians, Tsoulas was put out of work by a rapidly spreading viral pandemic. She had spent years working in administration for a third-party company that builds, supports, and operates conventions and trade shows in the area.

“In 2019, we were really busy. We had some big shows, but the year 2020 was supposed to be the killer year for all trade shows,” Tsoulas said.

It was “a killer year” — just not in the way the New England native and others imagined.

Tsoulas, like many others, was first furloughed with the expectation that after a few weeks, things would return to normal.

But weeks turned to months, and eventually, furlough turned to layoff.

“We’ve been cutting back on certain bills, robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s been hard," Tsoulas said. "It’s been really, really hard.”

She said she’s cut back where she can — even rationing some of her prescriptions to stretch her dollars.

In the meantime, she’s tried searching for work, with little to make of it.

“I’ve applied for things. It’s just that I don’t hear anything,” Tsoulas said. “They say it’s easy to get a job, but not at my age. I’m a little older. A lot of people are going to want to hire people in their 20s [who are] just getting out of college with a degree. I don’t have that. I was looking to retire in a few years.

"That was my dream, and it all blew up.”

Tsoulas is among an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people who are employed, directly or indirectly, by events held at the Orange County Convention Center.

So is James Murphy.

“I’m already looking to transition to something else,” Murphy said.

He's been in the business of building trade shows and conventions for 40 years. But now, Murphy said the pandemic has done him in. His small business, Your Labor Management, which helps hire workers to run trade shows, is now essentially shut down.

“I ran my company down to almost nothing just to keep employees employed and get money in their pockets,” Murphy said. “I had to lay everybody off. I had to close my office and warehouse. I had to move out of it because that was money just bleeding me.”

Murphy laid off his entire team, including his son Casey.

“I didn’t go to college — this is all I did. It’s very hard,” Casey Murphy said.

Like Tsoulas, Casey Murphy said rebounding has been anything but easy — not only for him, but for some 800 members of IATSE Local 835, of which Casey Murphy is a member.

“Everyone is looking for work right now,” Casey Murphy said. “There’s not one person in the union that’s not looking for work because unemployment is not cutting it.”

Like thousands of Floridians, Murphy said he, too, is waiting for his claim to get cleared from a backlog of problems and to finally get paid what’s owed.

They're holding onto hope as best they can, but what many have now is doubt. That doubt — and uncertainty — is of when things will get better, when tourists and trade shows will return in a post-pandemic time.

Rapid distribution of a vaccine, building immunity and confidence is the key to rebounding and getting people back to work — people like Tsoulas, and James Murphy, and Casey Murphy.

“I’m hoping once the vaccine comes out and it’s available to the general public that companies will start allowing employees traveling again,” James Murphy said.