Joseph Tolbert was recently called back to his job in the banquet department of the Washington Hilton for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The good news: He would earn a solid hourly wage again to support his two young kids.
The bad news: The work would last just a few days, while the hotel hosted a Mardi Gras bash.
“My first callback since 2020,” said Tolbert. “And I’m laid off the next week.”
The U.S. economy has been rapidly recovering from the pandemic downturn, adding more than 450,000 jobs in January alone. The unemployment rate is just 4% — down from a high of nearly 15% in April 2020 — and many employers are having a hard time recruiting, which has given employees more power. Today’s labor market is arguably the best for workers in years.
But the pandemic hit leisure and hospitality harder than any other sector of the economy. As Americans stayed home and local governments instituted lockdowns, jobs in restaurants and hotels disappeared practically overnight. Those jobs have returned in fits and starts as dictated by variants and consumer demand, but they have not returned evenly.
Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, Tolbert still misses his work at the Hilton. He had a good union job that paid more than $24 per hour, thanks to raises through his collective bargaining agreement. He paid nothing for his health insurance plan and grew a defined-benefit pension through his union.
Anything else available seems to be a downgrade.
“I can’t find nothing comparable,” the 46-year-old said.
Food service makes up the bulk of leisure and hospitality work. Jobs in that industry are down 8% from February 2020, with restaurants having rebounded significantly. But jobs in the smaller accommodations industry are still down a whopping 22%, leaving workers like Tolbert waiting for callbacks they’re no longer sure will come.
“The job losses were disproportionately happening in leisure and hospitality, and that’s where they remain,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute think tank.
Hotel occupancy rates are still below pre-pandemic levels, thanks in large part to a steep decline in business travel. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade lobby, projects that business travel won’t recover to its 2019 levels for another two years.
But many workers say there’s another factor at play: Hotels have reduced services during the pandemic, and may now see it as a way to cut labor costs over the long term. Some hotels now encourage guests to forgo daily room cleaning during their stays, and have pared back on room service and other staples of hotel stays.
“In our places it’s a constant struggle to get people back in” to their hotel jobs, said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents roughly 30,000 service workers in California and Arizona. “The hotels could be 90% full during the weekend, but they don’t want to have bellmen or they don’t want to have breakfast.”
Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta said last February that the company was focused on making “higher-margin businesses and creating more labor efficiencies.” The company has implemented a “flexible housekeeping policy” in the U.S. that includes cleaning before check-in and after checkout, but daily service is done only upon request. (Hilton is maintaining daily service at its Waldorf Astoria and other high-end hotel lines, as well as other properties overseas.)
A Hilton spokesperson declined to share figures on staffing levels relative to occupancy, saying the amount of work was determined by market demand and local business environments. As for daily housekeeping, the spokesperson said it was leaving that question to guests: “Hilton offers guests the choice and control to request the housekeeping services they desire.”
Unite Here’s Petersen said the determination to cut back services is a big reason about 30% of his members still haven’t returned to their old jobs.
“It’s all about profit,” he said. “Fewer workers will work harder to get the work done.”
After layoffs, unionized hotels call workers back to the job based upon seniority. The longer a worker’s tenure at the hotel, the higher they are on the list to return to work. If the hotel will only rehire for a handful of positions, then only the most senior employees get work. (Layoffs and callbacks have long been a common feature of the hotel industry, given the seasonal nature of the business, but the waits were typically much shorter pre-pandemic.)
Linda Butler, a housekeeper at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., said she has been called back to work on occasion over the past two years, typically for a few days at a time. She’s been reluctant to try to change careers because she loves working at the hotel and doubts she could improve upon the more than $22 per hour she earns there, along with benefits.
She said she would have lost her apartment already if not for a city-run pandemic rental assistance program.
“Financially, I’m a mess,” Butler said. “I’m desperate to get back to work.”
As a union shop steward, she often gets calls from other workers asking when the hotel might need them. (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 has 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,” said Butler, 61. “They put it all on a few women.”
Despite the tight labor market, some hotel workers have found themselves taking less-appealing jobs to stay afloat.
Claudia Valencia worked as a housekeeper at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel. She earned $27 per hour and had affordable health and dental coverage for the whole family. Her husband, Rodolfo, worked in the facilities department at the same hotel. They both lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic and then struggled to find similar-paying work.
Valencia said some of the women with more seniority get called in sporadically at her hotel. But those on the lower end of the callback list, like herself, rarely have work.
“The hotel doesn’t want to bring workers back,” she said. “They’ve gotten used to the work getting done with the very small number [of workers].”
Valencia ended up taking a job at a Walmart that pays $17 per hour. That may sound decent for retail work, but it’s a $10-per-hour pay cut compared to her union job at the Hilton, with worse benefits. Her husband had been painting homes, working twice the hours at roughly half his old pay rate, until he was recently called back to the hotel. They have two young daughters: a 6-year-old and an infant.
“We are very squeezed for money,” Valencia said. “What can we do but wait for the hotel and hope to God?”
Like many hotel workers, Valencia and her husband are immigrants, originally from Mexico City. Pandemic job losses have hit minority groups especially hard because those workers are more likely to be employed in industries like leisure and hospitality.
A study last year by EPI’s Gould and her colleague Melat Kassa found that job losses within that sector were most concentrated among Black and Hispanic women, and both male and female Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Meanwhile, workers in higher-paying managerial roles were more likely to be spared.
“There’s a race and gender story,” said Gould. “One of the reasons we’ve seen disproportionate job losses among certain demographic groups is because of 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, and then was laid off again later in the summer. She was offered temporary work during the recent holiday season.
“If there’s daily cleaning we would all get back to work, but only a few of us are getting called,” she said. “There are stretches where we don’t get any work.”
The hotel work has been so irregular that Reinante took a career training program through her union to become a pharmacy technician. That led her to an internship at a local pharmacy where she earned around $14 per hour. Her hotel job paid close to $26 per hour.
“Maybe there are many jobs out there, but not with as much pay as the hotel,” she said.
She joined other union housekeepers on a December trip to Hilton’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, where they delivered a petition demanding that daily housekeeping be reinstated. Unite Here said they had gathered 20,000 signatures.
Reinante completed her pharmacy internship but holds out hope that more full-time housekeeping will return. Some of her coworkers have given up and moved on, while others get prepared for work in the morning and even head to their hotel in hopes they’ll get the call.
“We don’t know if we’ll have a regular job to go back to,” said Reinante. “It’s all uncertainties.”