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After Layoffs Hit Hospitality Industry, Pandemic Threatens Longterm Job Security

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to another major story we've been following - the coronavirus pandemic. It's hit the hotel industry hard. Experts say it may not return to pre-pandemic strength until 2023, and 4 out of every 10 hotel employees are still out of a job. From member station WHYY, Laura Benshoff reports that they face both immediate financial hardship and long-term uncertainty.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Fifty-two-year-old Stephanie Swain (ph) has had pretty much the same job her whole adult life - cook at the Warwick Hotel in Center City, Philadelphia.

STEPHANIE SWAIN: I actually started in 1985, right out of high school. And then I left because I had a baby. And then I went back in '89, and I've been there ever since.

BENSHOFF: Due to the coronavirus, she lost that job in March, when the hotel shut down its kitchen. So instead of getting up every morning at 3:30 a.m. for the breakfast shift, Swain is home with her adult daughter and three grandchildren, who live with her.

AUTUMN: Hi.

BENSHOFF: Hello. What's your name?

SWAIN: She said, what's your name?

AUTUMN: Autumn (ph).

SWAIN: During the day, they're scattered around her apartment's living room on laptops, attending virtual school, while she hangs out in her bedroom. What's your name?

MELODY: Melody (ph).

BENSHOFF: Melody - that's a nice name.

After six months on unemployment and accepting food donations from a neighbor, Swain is worried - worried that her nearly $19-an-hour job, which she worked towards for 30 years, might be gone for good.

SWAIN: To go somewhere new, I might have to start at minimum wage. Like, I really wouldn't be able to pay my bills then. That's just so crazy, to think about starting over somewhere else.

BENSHOFF: But until more people are staying in hotels, it doesn't make financial sense to rehire employees like Swain. Nationally, hotels are hovering at around 50% occupancy. In big cities, recovery is slower and occupancy even lower.

ED GROSE: We're still at about 30, 40%.

BENSHOFF: That's Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. He says as long as business is hurting, hotels will rely on a skeleton staff.

GROSE: The folks that are bearing the brunt of this are our frontline staff, our hourly employees. I'm also very concerned that the longer that this goes on, we're going to have trouble getting some of those people back.

SWAIN: Hotels tend to carry a lot of debt, and many are already behind on their loans, which could lead to closures or turnover - some jobs never returning. Earlier in the pandemic, lobbyists for the industry asked for a $150 billion bailout, saying their financial picture was worse than the Great Recession and post-Sept. 11 combined. They got some, but not all they wanted.

Dermot Delude-Dix, a research analyst with the union Unite Here in Philadelphia, says their mostly older, Black and Latino members are now facing an uphill battle to re-enter the job market.

DERMOT DELUDE-DIX: That's a group of workers who generally find it really difficult to find a job, you know, and face race discrimination and age discrimination in hiring.

BENSHOFF: To lessen that possibility, the union is pushing for laws called right of recall. Under those provisions, hospitality workers get first dibs on returning to their old job if a hotel reopens rather than their job being offered to someone else or having to reapply for less pay. Such laws passed in major cities in California, and there's a push to bring them to Las Vegas and Philadelphia.

Stephanie Swain, the hotel cook in Philadelphia, would like that guarantee.

SWAIN: I miss getting up, going to work. I mean, I'm an early bird because I had to be there by 5:30. Now I'm just looking at the TV because I have nowhere to go.

BENSHOFF: Without a job, she says her anxiety is high, and she's not sleeping well.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.