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Travel companies are struggling to staff back up after pandemic-induced furloughs and layoffs.
No daily housekeeping at hotels. Frustrated flyers in the skies. Limited hours at the local eatery. Travelers will need to pack some extra understanding and empathy as businesses struggle to refill the jobs lost during the earlier pandemic months.
At Pappadeux Seafood Kitchen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fresh oysters have disappeared from the menu.
“It’s really a labor issue,” the bartender explains. “The chef needs two more line workers before we can bring them back. Shucking them is pretty labor intensive.”
At hotels across the country, daily housekeeping is no longer a given, and doing laundry, helping clean rooms, or stepping in to wait tables has become part of just a regular day for many managers.
And the skies have been anything but friendly this summer as tensions over a rash of cancellations due in part to crew shortages, long lines at understaffed check-in counters, and mask mandates have resulted in a surge of mid-air brawls and hostile encounters between travelers and airline workers.
Welcome to the world of pandemic travel, where those seeking a return to normal have often found their experiences to be anything but as travel companies that went from nearly shuttered to seeing bookings skyrocket seemingly overnight struggle to refill the 5.7 million travel-related jobs that were lost in 2020, according to Tourism Economics.
The latest Department of Labor numbers offer some encouragement, with restaurants and bars adding 253,000 people, hotels gaining 74,000, and arts entertainment and recreation hiring 53,000 in July. But the sector is still down 1.7 million jobs compared to February 2020.
While many have blamed supplemental unemployment benefits for giving workers little incentive to return, those in the trenches say a host of factors, including childcare issues, lifestyle and career changes brought about by pandemic reflections, and a fear of returning to public-facing jobs have exacerbated the labor shortage.
Businesses are hoping for some relief next month as the summer travel crunch eases, supplemental unemployment benefits expire, and more kids go back to in-person school. But the rise of the Delta variant has ushered in another cloud of uncertainty.
“That requires speculation beyond my ability,” says Geoff Luebkemann, senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
In the meantime, he asks travelers and customers to be patient.
“Just know that our desire, our deep fundamental desire, is to provide a good experience for you,” he says. “We are constrained by things that we have no control over right now. And we’re doing the best that we can. . . . Be kind to those people that are taking care of you.”
Perhaps in no place has the chaos of the fast return of domestic travel this summer been more evident than in the air, where unruly passengers and a rash of delays and flight cancellations dominated the headlines in recent weeks.
U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data shows passenger numbers have tripled since last year even as airlines have struggled to bring back workers on furlough and extended leaves. The operational problems have drawn scrutiny from Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Senate Transportation Committee chair, who in a letter to carriers last month noted that $58 billion in federal payroll support was given to the industry “to ensure an easier ramp-up when air travel returned.”
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Airline analyst Bob Mann said part of the problem comes from the fact that pilots can’t just walk back into the cockpit after an extended leave. If they haven’t had three takeoffs and landings in the past 90 days, they must get recertified.
Additionally, airlines have lost tens of thousands of their most experienced pilots, flight attendants, and ground workers to buyouts that the carriers floated to trim their payrolls when travel was all but shuttered.
That means less experienced workers (either newer hires or less senior staff) are often dealing with unprecedented levels of traveler hostility, which Mann says has been fueled in part by a higher number of leisure travelers, many of whom—unlike the seasoned business travelers who frequented the skies prepandemic—often need more help navigating the check-in and boarding process.
Charlene Butler is a veteran airline worker who decided to call it quits after more than 40 years. Although at 68 she was nearing retirement, Butler enjoyed her job and had every intention of working another two years to maximize her Social Security benefits.
But after returning from a two-month leave at the start of the pandemic, she decided to take a buyout.
“It was just such a struggle,” she says. “It was not a job I wanted anymore.”
As a manager, she had to take staff temperatures every day, nag workers to remain masked in the staff lounge, and field growing complaints from staff about all the new health rules and protocols.
“It’s just one thing after another. You’re working hard, you’re doing all these extra things, and it’s just not fun anymore,” she says.
Butler said she has no regrets about her decision. Her daughter, who is also a flight attendant, often comes home crying.
“Some trips are good,” she says. “But [flight attendants] fight with passengers almost every flight. Some days it feels like it’s a full moon. Constant turmoil.”
According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, leisure and hospitality accounted for 39 percent of all jobs lost in the U.S. since the onset of the pandemic—more than any other sector.
And hotels and restaurants are struggling to get workers to return, so they have had to often cut or curtail services as travelers have descended on domestic tourism hot spots at near prepandemic levels.
They’ve also had to curb expectations because many of their workers may be new and without a hospitality background, which means service levels may not be up to prepandemic levels.
“I think what frustrates the industry as a whole . . . is the demand is there; they just can’t service it,” says William Rademacher, general manager of boutique hotel the Wayfinder in Newport, Rhode Island.
His hotel is currently staffed at about 70 percent of prepandemic levels, but it has been able to reinstate all of its regular services other than daily housekeeping (available upon request) because his management team is stepping in to fill the voids. For instance, he had just finished working in the laundry room before hopping on the phone to be interviewed.
The elimination of daily housekeeping has been one of the most widespread changes across the hotel industry. But some hotels have also had to cut things like room service and operating hours of restaurants, spas, and other on-site services.
Jay Sheldon, general manager of the Equinox Golf Resort & Spa in Manchester, Vermont, says his resort is operating with about 75 percent of its ideal staffing level, coming off a busy summer and going into high season for fall foliage watchers.
Individual travelers as well as groups like weddings, he says, “are coming back in droves and have very high expectations. We have people taking on additional responsibilities in order to service our guests.”
Sheldon says they have not yet been able to resume room service, and they have had to adjust operating hours for onsite food and beverage venues to make sure that the property can execute the weddings, banquets, and meetings on a “flawless basis. So, it’s kind of caused us to pivot a little bit and change streams and make some reductions in areas that we normally wouldn’t consider.”
Overall, he says that guests have been understanding. But some “really crave for things to be 100 percent back to the way they were before. Those are their expectations and we have to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.”
At Restaurant Martin, a fine dining favorite for tourists and locals alike in Santa Fe, New Mexico, co-owner Jennifer Rios says every day feels like the movie Fifty First Dates. In that film, Drew Barrymore plays a woman who has short-term memory loss due to an accident and wakes up every morning unable to remember anything since, including her boyfriend. And every day he works to help her relearn.
“That’s exactly how I feel every day,” she says about the struggle to find and train new workers. “It’s tumultuous. A lot of new people all the time.”
While New Mexico did not actively encourage tourism last year, even taking out ads to remind travelers from Texas and Arizona about the state’s then-strict quarantine requirement, this summer the destination has been packed, Rios says. And every night her restaurant is fully booked.
“We looked at our numbers from [restaurant reservation service] OpenTable, and for July we were up 171 percent from 2020. And we’re doing that with a bunch of people that don’t know where the trays are,” says Rios.
The restaurant got federal aid to keep employees on the payroll while the restaurant was shuttered. But ultimately, only two of their back-of-the-house workers came back when the restaurant was able to reopen—a dishwasher and the woman who bakes their breads and desserts.
Like Geoff Luebkemann and the hoteliers, Rios cited a number of reasons for the worker shortage, not the least of which is the risk of exposure.
“Even wearing masks, you’re touching plates [customers] are eating from,” says Rios.
When the labor shortage may end is anyone’s guess, especially as the Delta virus surges.
“The next 90 days are really going to tell the tale,” says Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Luebkemann.
Rademacher of the Wayfinder says things are slowly getting better, but he adds that fundamental changes may be necessary across the hospitality industry to attract and retain workers, from better pay to management plans that recognize and better support loyal workers.
The labor shortage is “not going to suddenly, magically go away,” when supplemental unemployment benefits expire, he says. “I think it’s going to be going on for at least another year.”
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