210610ind hotel

Marc Grandmaison, general manager of The Break in Narragansett, works at the hotel’s front desk Tuesday morning.  Like many local hospitality businesses, The Break has dealt with numerous challenges during the pandemic including the current industry-wide staffing shortage.

HELP WANTED: Kitchen staff, maintainers, front desk assistants, bartenders, wait staff, kitchen workers, cooks. And the list goes on.

With 68,000 people receiving unemployment compensation and only 10% working, local hotels and motels are still struggling to find help as an avalanche of tourists is expected to fall on South County this summer.

And this comes as the state has sweetened the deal by allowing many who return to work to collect the federal unemployment benefits and earn more money before losing some portion of their state benefits. Still the problem exists for these and other businesses.

“The situation affecting hotels is so exceptionally dire right now,” Sarah Bratko of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association told The Independent this week.

“South County is the perfect embodiment of this perfect storm,” she added.

Waves of Tourists Coming

Summer tourists and vacationers are making plans to soon visit a South County now free from  COVID-19 restrictions. Because COVID restrictions have disappeared and pent-up travel is bursting among those cooped-up for a year, a boom in tourism is expected, according to local chamber of commerce and tourism officials.

However, hotels across the country report difficulty hiring enough housekeepers, kitchen staff and other hourly workers, including the ones they laid off early in the pandemic, ahead of the summer season expecting to bring a robust number of visitors to the region.

Indeed the visit might be memorable, but lodging managers want to avoid online reviews of bad memories like this recent one for a Narragansett hotel.

“Great location for Narragansett, but place is old and needs a makeover. There was no mention that rooms would not be cleaned and hence I think there should be a discount.”

“All they did was empty trash and swap out towels which I had to grab staff in the hallway to even do that… I would not have been happy paying double the rate for no room servicing and the overall dated and dirty condition.”

In a shoppers’ world where online reviews can significantly influence business during a busy tourist season, hotel and motel managers prefer reviews like this one for a hotel in the same area:

“This hotel is absolutely phenomenal, we recently stayed 2 nights and my only complaint is we weren’t able to stay longer! We were definitely hesitant among Covid, but they are taking every precaution possible. The staff is absolutely amazing…”

Making this problem difficult for hotel managers like Brenda Ball of Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott in South Kingstown and Marc Grandmaison of The Break in Narragansett — as well as many others — is that South County poses a high cost of living for these kinds of workers in the middle tiers of the U.S. economic ladder.

Coupling with that issue is the limited number of immigrants who take hospitality jobs, the costs of child care, a lack of affordable housing and additional federal unemployment benefits though the state is attempting to offset that with policies encouraging people to work as well, said Bratko of the hospitality association.

The Perfect Storm

“This is all a perfect storm and South County is bearing the brunt of it, though it can be found throughout the state,” she said.  “There is no one thing. It is very individual to employees affected,” she said.

For example, a person living in Providence may want to work in South County, but the lack of affordable housing prevents that move, public transportation to the area for the hours needed to work is difficult to arrange, the person cannot afford a car and some form of child care is needed, she said.

“It’s so frustrating. It’s been a hell of a year,” she added.

Ball, general manager of her hotel, agreed. “It’s definitely been a struggle. We’ve run ads since February on Indeed, Craig’s List and have had, job fairs,” she said.

Positions in housekeeping, maintenance, breakfast attendant, night audit are available at he hotel, she said.

Grandmaison, general manager at The Break — a hotel within eyesight of the Atlantic Ocean — needs bartenders, wait staff, cooks, prep cooks, front desk agents and housekeepers.

Managers are working extra shifts, people need to be cross-trained to do different jobs and he’s continuing the search for more people before the hotel restaurant opens in just a week and booked tourists start arriving on vacations toward the end of the month.

In North Kingstown at TownePlace Suites by Marriott, General Manager Patrick Brown said that he gets plenty calls — and plenty of no-shows for the interviews for the five positions he has open for front desk, housekeeping and maintenance.

He, like other managers, believes that the calls to inquire are part of the requirement to obtain jobless benefits, but that people may not really want the jobs. Suresh Bhalala, general manager and co—owner of Narragansett’s Scarborough Beach Motel, has found the same.

“People calling me, but don’t come in,” he said.  Victor Gee, attendant at the 18-room Wickford Motor Inn, North Kingstown, reported the same problem.

The attention, but lack of follow through producing the shortage is also leading some hotels to avoid opening fully because they don’t have the required staff for servicing the full operation.

Bhalala said his 28-room motel has curtailed daily housekeeping services for those staying multiple nights. He doesn’t have the staff to keep up with the work, he said.

National Issue

He and others in South County have company across the county.

“There have been weekends where I’ve had to let rooms go vacant because we didn’t have enough people to clean them,” said Sloan Dean, chief executive of management company Remington Hotels, recently told The Wall Street Journal.

The company has about 500 open positions across its 78 properties, which bear major brands including Marriott International Inc., Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp. and InterContinental Hotels Group PLC, Mr. Dean said.

And the local managers picking up the slack are in good company elsewhere in the United States.

To meet demand, David Mariotti, general manager of Remington—managed One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, Fla., said he spends about half of his 50-hour work week on housekeeping tasks when it gets busy, according to The Journal.

He drives the laundry truck, cleans guest rooms, stocks linen closets and performs other duties he did for training purposes before the pandemic.

Bratko, of the hospitality association, said that her trade group has created a website for members to post job openings for people to view (rihospitalityjobs.org).

“In creating this new ‘Jobs’ website, our goal is to centralize available opportunities for both employers and job seekers as the state reopens and recovers,” said Dale J. Venturini, association president and CEO.

State Assistance

The plight of hotel, restaurant and other tourist—dependent business has the focus of state officials.

Right now, state officials said recently, only about 10% of the 68,000 receiving unemployment compensation are reporting to be working.

Governor Dan McKee, in a recent interview with The Independent, said, “People who are unemployed need to look for work because it’s out there.”

“We’ve got to make sure that the small businesses get staffed properly otherwise they are not going to be able to take advantage of the robust economy that is coming,” he said.

Matthew Weldon, director of the state Department of Labor and Training, noted also in an interview with The Independent, “In South County in particular, the hospitality industry is in the bedrock of the economy.”

“We need to do something and that’s why we are doing it now. Those changes we are trying to put into place along with the return of the requirement to be seeking work while on unemployment should help get people back into the workforce,” he added.

Current law only allows people to earn less than their current weekly unemployment benefits. If they earn more, they are cut off.

In addition, someone can only have free and clear 20% of those earnings before losing money from their unemployment pay.

A change in law now provides a buffer so that, as Weldon noted, “You can earn more money, you can keep more of what you earn and stay connected to the $300 federal bonus and go back to work.”

The law now allows someone to earn up to 150% of their benefit amount and still qualify for partial unemployment payment, but would not get full payment.  “So long as they get $1 from the state, they’ll also get whatever the federal government provides,” he said.

In addition, those on unemployment who earn money from part—time work have a reduction in that overall benefit.  The law now allows someone to keep 50% — up from 20% — of the amount without penalty, Weldon said.

Weldon also said that the DLT has reinstated the requirement that unemployed workers document that they are seeking a job. It was not enforced during of last year’s pandemic.

Nonetheless, searching for a job is not the same as taking one, said the hotel and motel managers, with Patrick Brown of TownePlace Suites by Marriott noting an irony.  

“There’s definitely a lot of hotel jobs out there right now for anybody who needs them,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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