Hotels struggle to recover from pandemic swoon

Rebecca Lamb has been in the hospitality industry for 28 years, and she’s never seen what she’s seeing right now.

“Nobody wants to come back to work,” said Lamb, director of sales at SpringHill Suites in Gainesville. “We are now having to shut our booking system down almost daily because we don’t have the staffing to clean all the rooms.”

Lamb, president of the Alachua County Hospitality Council, said her hotel is not alone.

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“I don’t think there is a single hotel in the city not using contract labor, and that was not the case before COVID,” Lamb said. “Now we’re having to pay a lot more to these companies for contract labor.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, few industries were hit as hard as the hospitality sector. Now 15 months after widespread shutdowns blanketed the United States, many Americans have returned to traveling—but many hotel workers have not returned to their jobs, said several local managers who spoke with Mainstreet Daily News.

SpringHill Suites, which has 126 rooms, employed 29 people before the pandemic. When the shutdowns arrived, the hotel furloughed 20.

“Nine of us were left to run the whole hotel,” Lamb said, adding that the remaining staff took a 30 percent pay cut.

In February, as business began to pick up, SpringHill Suites managers started reaching out to former staff. But they declined to come back, with some citing generous unemployment benefits.

“One of those was our star breakfast host. We wanted her to come back, and she turned it down,” said Lamb, who also cited a long-time maintenance employee: “We furloughed him, and he said, ‘I make more staying at home.’”

In February 2020, the Florida unemployment rate stood at 3.3. percent, before ballooning as high as 14.2 percent in May 2020. As of last month that number had dipped back down to 4.9 percent, but the state’s labor participation rate remained mired at 57.9 percent—a pre-pandemic number not seen in Florida since 1983.

The Greater Gainesville Chamber reported 10,792 Alachua County job openings at the beginning of June—almost double the number from May 1.

Hotel managers say the process of finding workers has changed dramatically.

“People are not showing up [for interviews], but nobody is applying either,” said Megan Yeager, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Alachua.

Keri Wilson, general manager of Staybridge Suites in Gainesville

Keri Wilson, general manager of Staybridge Suites in Gainesville, echoed that sentiment.

“Before COVID, you’d put an ad on Indeed and get 30-40 applicants for a housekeeping job in the first week. You might get three or four who would show up for an interview, but at least you would get applicants,” she said. “Now I’ve had an ad out there for a week and got one applicant.”

Several managers said they’re hoping the state’s decision to withdraw from a federal program offering an extra $300 in unemployment benefits will make a difference—but it’s only a hope.

Lamb—who said her hotel lost $1.5 million due to COVID—said housekeepers that used to work for $10 an hour now want $15 to $18 an hour.

“A lot of people talk about how this industry has low wages, but are they willing to pay higher room rates so the person cleaning their room or serving their breakfast is able to get paid more?” Wilson asked.

For now, hotels are left scrambling to cover all the bases.

“I’m working housekeeping, laundry, maintenance—in addition to doing my job,” Lamb said.

Rita Patel cleans a SpringHill Suites room

Lamb and Wilson cited cleaning rooms as a particular challenge. Hotels generally have a three- to four-hour window in the midday hours to prepare all of the rooms.

“You’re going from 10 people cleaning a hotel to three or four people cleaning the same number of rooms—and with COVID we have to clean even more,” said Wilson, whose hotel has 109 rooms. “You’re taking extra precautions with even less staff.”

Wilson said an increasing number of “staycation” guests, as opposed to business travelers, has complicated the matter further, since they more often want to check out late and get a discounted or comped room if theirs is not ready on time. She said expectations have increased.

“It’s a hard balance,” Wilson said. “People want to pay less for their rooms, but want to get paid more for their work.”

Lamb said she loves her industry and wants to see it get back to normal.

“I want guests to have the customer service they expect, and it’s hard to do that when you’re so short staffed,” she said. “When you love what you do and a guest is unhappy, that breaks your heart.”

Marcel Carter works the front desk at Staybridge Suites in Gainesville

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