COVID-19 tanked the hotel business. Workers of color are feeling the biggest squeeze

“I don’t even know what that’s like, having to actually go fill out an application to try to get another job, and fit in somewhere,” said Swain. “Starting over, like that’s just so crazy.”

  • By Laura Benshoff/Keystone Crossroads

(Philadelphia) — Stephannia Swain, 52, has had the same job for almost her entire adult life, cooking at the Warwick Hotel in Center City Philadelphia.

“We only have six cooks and we’re all lifers,” she said. With 30 years’ experience, Swain was the most senior, but others in the kitchen had been part of the team for nearly two decades.

Seniority meant she had control over her schedule, something that helped her balance time with family. Swain lives with her daughter in South Philly and helps to raise her three grandchildren, Aaron, Melody and Otto. Swain’s pay, $18.50/hour, also helped provide for them.

Then in March, the Warwick closed the kitchen, and Swain was laid off.

A return to the job market is not only scary to her at this point, it’s completely foreign.

“I don’t even know what that’s like, having to actually go fill out an application to try to get another job, and fit in somewhere,” said Swain. “Starting over, like that’s just so crazy.”

COVID-19’s economic aftershocks have hit the hospitality industry especially hard. Experts say it may not return to pre-pandemic strength until as late as 2023. That disruption presents both an immediate financial hardship, and a long-term, existential one as veteran employees face the prospect of losing financial stability and status accrued over decades of work.

“To go somewhere new and start at minimum wage, like, I really wouldn’t be able to pay my bills then,” said Swain, who has collected unemployment for nearly six months and sometimes receives donated food from a neighbor.

Nationally, hotel occupancy is hovering at around 50 percent, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. In urban areas, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, business is even slower — in the 30% to 40% range.

“Virtually all business travel has halted. … Conventions have cancelled for the year, or postponed. Pretty much all we are seeing in hotels are the leisure travelers,” said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. By contrast, rural destinations such as the four-county Pocono region are bouncing back. Hotels and resorts in that region hit 62% occupancy in July, said Chris Barrett, president/CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau.

For hotel margins to make sense during the downturn, even those in areas recovering more quickly have fewer employees, prioritizing managers over more numerous but lower-paid staff.

“The folks that are bearing the brunt of this [downturn] are our frontline staff, our hourly employees,” said Grose. In Pennsylvania, around 167,800 fewer people are employed in hospitality and leisure jobs now than were during the same time last year, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.  Most jobs in the hotel industry are service-sector jobs, and those such as line cook or housekeeper, which have a majority Black and Latino workforce, according to federal data.

Even with reduced costs, some hotels may not survive the current recession. One Embassy Suites in Philadelphia has already switched its business model and is converting to apartments, said Grose. Eighteen other hotels in the Philadelphia metro region are behind on their loan payments, according to the analytics company Trepp.

In April, hotel lobbyists pushed the federal government unsuccessfully for a $150 billion bailout. The business assistance they did receive from the CARES Act was minimal and didn’t help preserve many blue collar jobs.

Latanya Little lost her job due to the pandemic. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For older workers, a steeper road back

Latanya Little, 50, lost her job as a room service cashier at the Warwick in March. In June, she lost her husband, Lawrence Rainey, to COVID-19. In her rowhouse in Olney, plaques commemorating his life hang on the walls and pictures from the last anniversary they celebrated together are displayed in a curio cabinet.

“I just hope and pray that we get our jobs back,” she said. “I plan on retiring there.”

On Sept. 20, it will be six months since she lost her job. At that point, a provision in her union contract that allows laid-off workers to return to their old jobs will expire, making her anxious about her prospects for making it to retirement.

A message left for the Warwick’s general manager asking for clarification of the hotel’s plans for laid-off workers was not returned.

Industry-wide, hotel workers have been advocating for a protection that acknowledges the current financial straits facing management but offers solace in the future — seeking a guarantee that if their jobs eventually return, they’ll get first dibs at their old rates.

“There’s a lot of middle-aged to older middle-aged Black workers who are the bulk of hotel workers [in Philadelphia], and that’s a group of workers that find it difficult to find a job and face racial discrimination and age discrimination in hiring,” said Dermot Delude-Dix, a research analyst with the union Unite Here Local 54. The union has pushed for a local law guaranteeing the “right to return” in Philadelphia, as well as in Las Vegas and New York City. Advocates have succeeded in cities including Los Angeles and Oakland. The idea hasn’t become a priority for Philadelphia City Council.

Older workers face a steeper climb if they lose their jobs, with less time before retirement to make up lost wages, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Black and Latino communities have also been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and supporters of “right to return” say it’s a way to keep workers in those communities from being doubly disadvantaged.

Some hotels have extended a right for workers to return to their jobs, voluntarily or under pressure from workers. Seven of the 15 hotels in the Philadelphia region that are represented by Unite Here Local 54 have done so.

The Philadelphia Downtown Marriott, which is not unionized, recently sent employees a letter saying they would be brought back as of Dec. 31, but that it “may also be necessary in the future to eliminate a number of positions.”

“I don’t know what this means, I’m terrified,” said laid-off food expeditor Lekesha Wheelings, who worked for 14 years in the kitchens at that Marriott, which is attached to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The hotel closed at the start of the pandemic and has not reopened. She said getting the letter is a good sign, but, “next year it could be something different. … Just not knowing is the hard part.”

Marriott corporate management declined to comment on the operation of specific hotels, but said in a statement from corporate spokesperson Lucy Slosser, “Business levels have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic, and continue to determine hotel operational and staffing adjustments.”

With so much up in the air, Wheelings said that if she doesn’t go back to work soon, she’ll scramble to find another way to earn income — but that also means accepting that the career and financial stability she earned are gone.

“It took me 14 years to get to $20 per hour, and it would probably be hard finding a job that starts at that level,” she said.

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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