Joseph Tolbert was recently called back to his post in the banqueting department at the Washington Hilton for the first time since the pandemic began.
The good news: he would once again be earning a solid hourly wage to support his two young children.
The bad news: the works will only last a few days, while the hotel will host a Mardi Gras party.
“My first encore since 2020,” Tolbert said. “And I’m laid off next week.”
The US economy has recovered quickly from the pandemic downturn, creating more than 450,000 jobs in January alone. The unemployment rate is just 4% – from a high of nearly 15% in April 2020 – and many employers are struggling to recruit, which has empowered employees. Today’s labor market is arguably the best for workers in years.
But the pandemic has hit the leisure and hospitality industry harder than any other sector of the economy. As Americans stayed home and local governments instituted shutdowns, restaurant and hotel jobs disappeared virtually overnight. These jobs have come back in spurts based on variations and consumer demand, but they haven’t come back evenly.
Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, Tolbert is still missing his job at the Hilton. He had a good union job that paid over $24 an hour, thanks to raises in his collective agreement. He paid nothing for his health insurance plan and accrued a defined benefit pension through his union.
Anything else available appears to be a downgrade.
“I can’t find anything comparable,” the 46-year-old said.
Catering constitutes the main part of leisure and hospitality work. Jobs in this industry were down 8% from February 2020 as restaurants rebounded significantly. But jobs in the small accommodation sector are still down 22%, leaving workers like Tolbert waiting for callbacks they are no longer sure of.
“Job losses were disproportionately occurring in leisure and hospitality, and that’s where they stay,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute think tank.
Hotel occupancy rates are still below pre-pandemic levels, thanks in large part to a sharp decline in business travel. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, a business lobby, predicts that business travel will not return to 2019 levels for two years.
But many workers say there’s another factor at play: Hotels have cut services during the pandemic and may now see it as a way to cut long-term labor costs. Some hotels are now encouraging guests to forgo daily room cleaning during their stays and have reduced room service and other basics of hotel stays.
“Back home, it’s a constant struggle to get people back into” their jobs in the hospitality industry, said Kurt Petersen, co-chair of Unite Here Local 11, which represents about 30,000 service workers in California and Arizona. “Hotels can be 90% full on weekends, but they don’t want to have bellboys or they don’t want to have breakfast.
Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton noted last February that the company was focused on building “higher-margin businesses and creating greater labor efficiency.” The company has set up aflexible housekeeping policy” in the United States which includes cleaning before check-in and after check-out, but daily service is only done on request. (Hilton maintains daily service at its Waldorf Astoria and other upscale hotel lines, as well as other properties overseas.)
A Hilton spokesperson declined to share figures on staffing levels versus occupancy, saying the amount of work was determined by market demand and local business environments. As for day-to-day housekeeping, the spokesperson said he leaves that question up to guests: “Hilton gives guests the choice and control to request the housekeeping services they want.”
Unite Here’s Petersen said the determination to cut services is a big reason why around 30% of its members have still not returned to their old jobs.
“It’s about profit,” he said. “Fewer workers will work harder to get the job done.”
After layoffs, unionized hotels call workers back to work based on seniority. The longer a worker’s tenure at the hotel, the higher they are on the list to return to work. If the hotel only rehires for a handful of positions, only the most experienced employees get work. (Ifurloughs and callbacks have long been a common feature of the hospitality industry, given the seasonal nature of the business, but expectations were generally much shorter before the pandemic.)
Linda Butler, a housekeeper at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, said she’s been called back to work on occasion for the past two years, usually for a few days at a time. She is hesitant to try to change careers because she loves working at the hotel and doubts she can improve on the more than $22 an hour she earns there, plus benefits.
She said she would have lost her apartment by now if not for a city-run pandemic rental assistance program.
“Financially, I’m a mess,” Butler said. “I can’t wait to get back to work.
As a shop steward, she often gets calls from other workers asking when the hotel might need her. (An Omni spokesperson did not respond to questions about occupancy and staffing levels.) A spokesperson for Butler’s union, Unite Here Local 25, said the Omni Shoreham had at least agreed to maintain daily housekeeping during the pandemic, unlike the Hilton.
Even so, Butler suspects the hotel is trying to do more with less.
“They have work for us, but they’re not bringing us back,” Butler, 61, said. “They put it all on a few women.”
Despite the tight job market, some hospitality workers have found themselves taking less attractive jobs to stay afloat.
Claudia Valencia worked as a housekeeper at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square hotel. She earned $27 an hour and had affordable medical and dental coverage for the whole family. Her husband, Rodolfo, worked in the facilities department of the same hotel. They both lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic and then struggled to find similar paid work.
Valencia said some of the older women were called to his hotel sporadically. But those at the bottom of the recall list, like her, rarely have work.
“The hotel doesn’t want to bring the workers back,” she said. “They got used to working with the very small number [of workers].”
Valencia ended up taking a job at a Walmart that pays $17 an hour. That might sound decent for the retail job, but it’s a $10 an hour pay cut from his union job at the Hilton, with worse benefits. Her husband had been painting houses, working twice as many hours at about half his old salary, until he was recently called back to the hotel. They have two young daughters: a 6 year old and a baby.
“We are very short of money,” Valencia said. “What can we do but wait for the hotel and hope in God?” »
Like many hoteliers, Valencia and her husband are immigrants, originally from Mexico City. The pandemic job losses have hit minority groups particularly hard, as these workers are more likely to be employed in sectors like leisure and hospitality.
A study last year by EPI’s Gould and her colleague Melat Kassa found that job losses in this sector were most concentrated among black and Hispanic women, as well as American men and women from Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Meanwhile, workers in higher-paying management positions were more likely to be spared.
“There’s a race and gender story,” Gould said. “One of the reasons we’ve seen disproportionate job losses among certain demographic groups is occupational segregation.”
Nely Reinante, a housekeeper from the Philippines, lost her job at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in Honolulu in March 2020. She waited 15 months for her first callback, in June 2021, then was fired again later in the summer. She was offered a temporary job during the recent holiday season.
“If there was daily cleaning, we would all go back to work, but only a few of us are called out,” she said. “There are times when we don’t have work.”
Hospitality work was so irregular that Reinente completed a vocational training program through her union to become a pharmacy technician. This led to her interning at a local pharmacy where she earned around $14 an hour. Her job at the hotel paid nearly $26 an hour.
“Maybe there are a lot of jobs there, but not with as much pay as the hotel,” she said.
She joined other union housekeepers on a December trip to Hilton headquarters in Northern Virginia, where they delivered a petition calling for daily housekeeping to be reinstated. Unite Here said it collected 20,000 signatures.
Reinente has finished her internship in pharmacy, but hopes that other full-time household chores will return. Some of his colleagues have given up and moved on, while others are getting ready for morning work and even heading to their hotel in hopes of getting the call.
“We don’t know if we’ll have a regular job to go back to,” Reinante said. “These are all uncertainties.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.