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Florida’s hospitality industry: Employers need workers. Workers need jobs. What’s the problem?

  • May 11, 2021

Evans Philias of Hollywood is eager to get back to work. He was furloughed in March 2020 after seven years with Starbucks at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

While some of his co-workers have been rehired, Philias is still waiting. After more than a year, he struggles to support his wife and daughter on his $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit.

Matthew Slaine, the CEO of Quality Restaurant Group, has the opposite problem. QRG owns more than 350 Pizza Huts, Sonic Drive-Ins, Arby’s and Moe’s Southwest Grills that need workers just like Philias. In fact, the company needs almost 1,500 of them in Florida alone.

But Slaine can’t find those workers. And Philias said he isn’t willing to work for less than he earned before.

It is an increasingly common mismatch frustrating an entire industry already decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite a high demand for workers, and the fact that Florida’s unemployment rate in the hospitality industry is still 24% above pre-pandemic lows, employers and employees cannot seem to come together. 

Hospitality facing hiring hurdles

The hospitality sector — hotel, entertainment and restaurant businesses — was among the industries most profoundly affected by last year’s economic shutdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And it is the sector that arguably has most struggled to bounce back.

In part, the lackluster hiring back of workers reflects the impediments the sector still faces in returning to full productivity. Many restaurants still are not operating at full capacity indoors. Many movie theaters have not reopened to full occupancy. Theme parks, arguably the biggest single-point employers in the sector, are limiting turnstile entries. And cruise ships remain docked at port.

About 90% of the state’s 1.5 million hospitality workers found themselves unemployed at some point last year, reported the Florida AFL-CIO. And while the state reported that the number of leisure and hospitality workers rebounded to just over one million in March, employment in the sector remains well below pre-pandemic highs. 

On the surface, that gap would seem to indicate that hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers should be available to meet today’s demand. But that’s not the case.  

The reason? Depends on whom you ask.

“These companies have to pay more,” said Philias. “That’s what it’s about. In Florida, it’s hard. We don’t make enough money.”

Philias earned $15.50 per hour before the layoff, and he wants to return to his old job, and wage, at the airport Starbucks. He is not interested in working for less money, which he said would likely be the case if he took another restaurant job. 

In addition to losing his seniority and benefits, Philias said, he would also be walking away from a great job doing exactly what he loves.

Then there’s a factor that makes Philias a bit of an anomaly. He represents 500 South Florida workers through his role as a union representative, and he said he cannot abandon those people in the middle of contract negotiations designed to get everyone rehired.

Workers want more money

Slaine, of QRG, said he understands workers want higher wages. But in an industry that runs on thin profit margins, those pay increases, coupled with other skyrocketing costs, could drive a restaurant into the ground pretty quickly. As it stands today, he said, some restaurants are barely hanging on.

“In Florida, we often have to close early or open late, or, in some cases, we close restaurants for a few hours because we just don’t have enough workers to keep them open,” he said.  

His company has upped wages and begun paying some employees retention bonuses and referral fees, Slaine said. It is considering enhancing other benefits, including improved medical coverage and tuition reimbursement. It has also begun to offer premium pay and bonus opportunities, as well as a free meal per shift to each employee — a bigger perk than the discount on meals it previously offered. 

“Really, more than anything, we are focusing on training our managers and above-store leaders to make sure that we are providing the best work environment that we can,” he said. 

Still, applications are barely trickling in, Slaine said, and the company has only 50% to 55% of the number of workers it needs in Florida. 

“It’s hard,” he said. “Everyone is in the same boat, so it’s kind of a race to keep your people and attract new ones.” 

The labor shortage could soon get worse.

More than one-third of hospitality workers said they plan to leave the industry within the next year, according to a new poll by Florida Atlantic University. That means even fewer workers to support the state’s $111.7 billion dollar hospitality industry, said Peter Ricci, director of FAU’s hospitality and tourism management program.

“For years, the industry has struggled with a public relations problem of long hours, low pay and demanding guests,” Ricci said in a statement. “Now, those who work in the business have an even more tarnished image from the pandemic’s impacts. The industry needs more than just a PR campaign. It needs a full overhaul in its staffing levels, pay rates and employee treatment.”

Employers blame federal stimulus money, benefits

The survey’s results appear to reflect a pool of hospitality workers who are disappointed and disillusioned with the industry. Only a mere 13.5% of workers told pollsters they felt confident the industry would protect their jobs in the event of a future crisis. Another 57% said they were furloughed, laid off, or had their hours cut hastily, and more than 43% said they planned to leave their current company in the next year.

A similar national poll revealed 53% of restaurant workers said they are considering leaving their jobs, with 76% citing reasons such as low wages and tips. That poll was released this week by One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit that advocates on behalf of subminimum wage workers, in conjunction with the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

Slaine, however, said the worker shortage is more likely tied to something else: federal stimulus money and federal unemployment benefits.

“A good portion of the applications we are getting are people who need to apply but have no intention of showing up for work,” he said, suspecting people are only trying to meet the job search requirements needed to qualify for unemployment benefits. “In many cases, people are making the same or more money by not working.”

Florida’s minimum wage is $8.56 per hour, but for tipped employees it is only $5.63. The federal benefit of $300 per week equates to $7.50 per hour. 

The difference is not enough to motivate some workers, Slaine said, particularly after Florida in November passed a law raising minimum wage to $15 an hour. He said workers do not always realize that increase will roll out in annual increments and will not reach $15 until 2024.

“There’s been a big gap in understanding by employees of what’s happening in the next few years,” he said. “They hear $15, and then they think we’re not in the market.”

Lorraine Doyle, an office manager at Riverbend Condos and Golf Club in Tequesta, can’t find employees, either. The $14 per hour the club is offering for the open housekeeping and landscaping positions is just not enough to attract applicants, she said.

“I’m ready for the $15-an-hour minimum wage,” she said. “I believe in that. I wish our board would be more willing to bump it to that sooner than what we are required to do.” 

To draw more applicants, Doyle said, the club is offering an appealing health insurance plan and a $500 bonus after 90 days. But nothing seems to work, she said. Now, one of her maintenance workers has had to pick up the slack. 

“Luckily, he’s got a good attitude,” she said. “Normally, he’s taking care of the tennis courts, painting. Now he’s cleaning bathrooms.” 

Like Slaine, Doyle believes federal subsidies have enabled people to delay going back to work longer than they otherwise might have.

Parents forced to stay home 

Still, she said, she understands that, because of the pandemic, many parents have been forced to stay home to care for children or assist them with virtual schooling and are not necessarily doing it by choice.  

For many families, the cost of child care is prohibitive, agreed Tom Veenstra, vice president of administration at Career Source Palm Beach County. He said because women tend to pick up that slack more often than men, and because most hospitality workers are women, that leaves fewer women available to work.

“There isn’t the number of people in the labor pool available like there would ordinarily be,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this in the history of Palm Beach County.”

Either way, Doyle said she hopes something changes soon. 

“At some point, I figure the extra unemployment money is going to run out, and all these people will be scrambling to get jobs,” she said. “Maybe there is someone out there who wants to beat the rush.” 

It won’t be Jorge Pérez. The bartender from Miami was laid off on March 21, 2020, after 14 years with The Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood and after a total of 22 years with Hilton Worldwide. 

Pérez, also a union member, said it simply does not make sense to throw away his entire career for a temporary job. 

“I feel like that company is my family,” he said, adding that it would be unfair to a new employer for him to accept a job he has no intention of keeping. 

“I cannot leave them high and dry,” he said. “I’m a loyal employee.”

After more than a year of negotiations, Unite Here! last week secured a commitment from every one of its Florida hotels, including the Diplomat, to rehire furloughed union workers like Pérez.

It has been a long time coming, Pérez said, but he feels fortunate to have people willing to fight for him. 

“I’m not anticipating any additional money, but at least I know we have decent pay because of the union,” he said. “Many other non-union people have to go find new jobs, new positions, different careers.” 

Non-union workers like Karen Cantor are in that position. In March 2020 she was laid off from her marketing job at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens after 15 years in the industry and nine years in the position. 

“We were called into the ballroom and told we were being furloughed indefinitely with no plan of action or strategic timeline to return,” she said. “There was no assurance — it was just very vague.” 

Cantor said 95% of PGA employees were let go, leaving her little hope of ever returning. With trouble accessing her state unemployment benefits and the hospitality industry at a virtual standstill, Cantor said, she knew she needed to act fast.

Within two months, she switched careers. Despite a steep learning curve, she said, the timing could not have been better. She now works in real estate in one of the hottest housing markets in decades.

“Everybody was kind of left in a lurch to figure out a Plan B, and now they’ve moved on,” she said of the “many” hospitality workers she knows who left for jobs in industries such as finance, insurance and real estate. 

That exodus, coupled with federal stimulus money, has left folks like Jayson Koss, co-founder of Delivery Dudes, woefully understaffed, he said. 

“The reality is the stimulus checks crushed the labor pool,” Koss said. “The second these stimulus checks started going out, applications fell off the cliff.” 

As did Riverbend, Delivery Dudes is now offering signing bonuses and higher pay to help fill a host of open positions.

“We tried to keep the wheels on the bus, and now we are back to about 85% employment, but it was pretty rough for a couple of weeks,” Koss said. 

Koss also agreed with Doyle that the pool of applicants should fill up again once federal unemployment benefits end.

“I think it was fun for a second — that was the mentality,” Koss said of unemployed workers. “But at some point, the money dries up and people need to find work.”

Money matters, but it isn’t everything 

Wendi Walsh, secretary and treasurer of Unite Here! Local 355, said she hopes employers in the hospitality industry are finally realizing they need to treat employees better if they hope to attract and keep them. Local 355 is one of 500 local unions representing more than a million members of the Florida AFL-CIO, which includes members from industries such as hospitality, construction, healthcare, education, law enforcement and firefighters.

And she said she worries that, while some workers will end up making more money as a result of the labor shortage, others, especially non-union workers, might be taken advantage of. 

“We’re finding that there is pervasive understaffing, so some workers will return and do the work of two workers, when they used to do one job,” she said. “And some workers might be returned at a lower wage or reduced benefits to make up for losses.” 

It is a concern that rings true for Kimberly Filion, a server at Kirby’s Sports Grille in Juno Beach. Since returning to work on May 11, 2020, after a two-month shutdown, Filion has been working double shifts four days a week to make up for the restaurant’s short-staffing. 

She works so much these days, the single mother said, she sometimes begins at 11 a.m. and does not get home to her four children until nearly 2 a.m. 

Filion said she knows she might earn more elsewhere amid today’s high demand for servers. But there is more to life than money, she said, and she’s not going anywhere. 

“You go somewhere else and it’s hit or miss,” she said. “There is security here. I just feel like I have loyalty to everyone here and I love this place. I really do.”

@WendyRhodes

Article source: http://rssfeeds.usatoday.com/~/651828052/0/usatodaycomwashington-topstories~Floridas-hospitality-industry-Employers-need-workers-Workers-need-jobs-Whats-the-problem/

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