Battered hard by the pandemic, Santa Monica’s hotels now find themselves uniquely poised to weather the labor shortage storm raging at the wider hospitality industry.
As local restaurant owners are pulling tables for lack of staff members, most hotel managers have been able to meet customer demand and even keep extra resumes in their back pocket.
Santa Monica’s hotels have several factors working in their favor — a more gradual ramp up in demand, strong worker recall laws, a pre-existing employee pipeline, and the ability to offer competitive wages.
“The particular facts in Santa Monica indicate that there should not be a shortage of hotel workers right now,” said Danielle Wilson, a spokesperson for the Unite Here Local 11 hospitality labor union.
Unlike most other cities, Santa Monica had a law in place prior to the pandemic that required hotels to recall all of their furloughed members, in order of seniority, once demand returned. Recall laws provide long-term job security for workers and can benefit employers by lessening the likelihood that their employees pursue new opportunities.
“One of the advantages of these laws is that when people know they have a right to go back to their job, people tend to want those jobs,” said Wilson.
Prior to the pandemic, Unite Here Local 11 had 1,200 members working in Santa Monica. As of their latest count in April, only around 500 of those members were back at their jobs. While this number is likely higher now, it indicates that a significant portion of workers are still waiting to be recalled.
One such employee is Elba Hernandez who has worked in the housekeeping department at the Downtown Hilton since 1990. She was furloughed from her position as room inspector in March 2020 and has yet to be called back.
“I need to go back to work, because I need my job. I’ve been there for 30 years and I need to pay my bills, I am the supporter of my household” said Hernandez. “I’m getting money from unemployment right now, but it’s not enough money to pay my bills.”
According to data from Santa Monica Travel and Tourism (SMTT), hotels are at 50 to 60 percent occupancy during the week and reach 70 percent or higher on the weekends. While this is a significant rebound from last summer, a sizable gap remains from the 90 percent plus occupancies seen in a typical summer season.
“We’re not running consistently high numbers that warrant bringing everybody back, because nobody wants to be in a situation where you have to turn around and lay people off again,” said SMTT CEO Misti Kerns.
While many hotels are still operating at reduced staff levels, there are some locations with booming demand. The Fairmont Miramar, for example, has recalled all of its staff and is actively recruiting more employees, according to General Manager Sam Jagger.
Beyond the recall pool, hotels also have access to trained workers through Santa Monica’s partnership with the Los Angeles Hospitality Training Academy.
“Santa Monica has a local hiring pipeline that it created some years ago for exactly this kind of situation; so when the hospitality industry needs to step up there would be a pipeline of local residents that want to join Santa Monica’s hospitality industry,” said Wilson.
The academy offers a range of housekeeping, cooking, and bartending training programs and works with several local hotels to place participants in jobs.
“We have enough participants that if anybody called us right now and said ‘hey I need this kind of worker’, we can send them resumes immediately,” said Adine Forman, Executive Director of the HTA.
Hotels also have financial advantages over other hospitality businesses when it comes to attracting workers. Even prior to the pandemic, the hotel minimum wage in Santa Monica was more than $2 per hour higher than the rate for other businesses.
There is currently high demand for restaurant workers across the City. The Rustic Canyon Family, for example, is scrambling to staff around 40 positions in its nine local restaurants.
Since room rates, and not restaurant revenues, form the bread and butter of their business, hotels are able to lure restaurant workers with higher wages.
“The dynamic between hotels and restaurants has gotten a little contentious during COVID, because hotels are typically in a much stronger position financially to pay for workers,” said restaurant and hospitality expert Hunter Hall.
At the Marriott Residence Inn & Courtyard in nearby Marina del Rey, General Manager Mark Murphy reports that the front of house workers at Brizo restaurant have hourly wages in the high teens, while back of house workers have hourly wages in the lower twenties.
When Brizo reopened after the winter shut down of outdoor dining, Murphy said he had very little trouble rehiring staff.
“Most of them came back I think because of the volume that they’re doing, the opportunity for them to make a lot of money and the culture we created,” said Murphy.
Although local hotels have several hiring advantages, they are not immune to the effects of the labor shortage.
“Some of the shortages in other industries are impacting hotel occupancies,” said Kerns. “Just look at how many flights American Airlines canceled because they simply don’t have enough staff.”
American Airlines canceled more than three hundred flights over the weekend of June 19 and 20, and released a statement saying they may need to cancel 50 to 60 flights a day for the rest of the month.
Kerns also said that shortages in the rental car industry are affecting the number of tourists coming to Santa Monica. Many rental car companies sold off huge portions of their fleet last year to compensate for their revenues losses when travel ground to a halt.