Tourist season is in full swing in Central Florida, and hotels are filling up with visitors paying a premium for lodging during one of the busiest times of year.
But like others industry-wide, Orlando’s hotels are still generally experiencing staffing shortages. Fewer housekeepers and culinary staff mean some hotel operations look different and guests could notice changes from years past.
Many local hotels are short-staffed by 15 to 30%, said Michael “Doc” Terry, a senior instructor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. As a result, guests are seeing hotels limit their restaurant hours and cut housekeeping services to every other day, he said.
“I do not remember a worse time [for staffing],” said Terry, whose 30 years of prior experience in hotel management include operating properties in Orlando.
A recent national survey conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association found 97% of hotels reported staffing shortages. Nearly half of hotels surveyed described their shortage as severe and said housekeeping jobs were the hardest to fill.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association does not track employment data, but its contacts at Central Florida hotels said in May that they had “significant understaffing” in housekeeping, food and beverage and back-of-house roles, spokeswoman Ashley Chambers said.
These concerns are nothing new for the hotel industry, which has experienced short-staffing for decades, association senior vice president Geoff Luebkemann said in an interview. Florida’s hotels have largely returned to pre-pandemic staffing numbers, he said.
“That doesn’t mean that our operations are diminished in any sense, but you’re always looking for talent,” he said.
Florida’s robust tourist economy and pent-up demand for domestic travel place it in a better position for job recovery than other states, Luebkemann said. In Orlando’s tourism corridor, hotels are “optimistic about the labor market” with the volume and quality of job candidates rising, he added.
Experts predict staffing in the hospitality industry could take until 2023 or 2024 to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. National data shows the number of industry jobs growing, but overall employment trails pre-pandemic numbers after employers laid off workers and frontline employees left the industry for better opportunities.
To keep existing employees and draw new ones, hotel operators must listen to longstanding employee concerns over workplace treatment, scheduling flexibility and work-life balance and accommodate their needs, analysts said.
“This is not, ‘just throw some money at somebody,’” Terry said. “… The industry is facing a strong revolution, and only the owners who’ll get it are going to survive.”
Entry-level culinary positions are still the most in-need for hotels that are experiencing short-staffing, Luebkemann said. Terry said housekeeping workers are also in-demand locally.
“Those entry-level positions have always been the higher turnover, sparser operations,” Luebkemann said.
Due to the worker shortage, hotels are increasingly outsourcing roles like housekeeping to third-party companies and using technology to fill gaps, Terry said.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the labor and hospitality industry grew by 67,000 jobs in June, but employment is still down by 1.3 million positions since February 2020, a decline of 7.8 percent.
Florida added 2,300 leisure and hospitality jobs from April to May, according to the most recent data. Over the past year, the sector has grown by 127,700 jobs statewide.
Some local hotels have been able to fill jobs by offering higher wages, Luebkemann said.
“A lot of those positions are good paying jobs now, $18, $20 an hour,” he said.
Data show hotel desk clerks working in accommodation make a national average of $13.38 per hour, with Florida’s workers making slightly more at $13.77. Hotel maids and housekeepers make around $13.58 nationally and $12.90 in Florida, while hotel food servers earn $14.39 nationally and $12.41 in Florida.
The state minimum wage is rising to $15 by 2026. When Disney and Universal raised their minimum wage to that level last year, it helped helped persuade other hoteliers to raise their rates. Disney’s hourly housekeeping wages now start at $17.
Local hotels have also begun providing financial incentives like increasing benefits and offering sign-on, retention and referral bonuses.
These increased staffing costs are likely being passed on to guests as hotel room rates rise nationwide, Luebkemann and Terry said, but they have a minor effect amid inflation rising other costs.
A potential recession on the horizon could alter future staffing trends, Luebkemann said. Hotels are paying close attention to economic factors’ effects on travel sentiment and operating costs.
“It’s a very resilient industry and very quick to react externalities,” Luebkemann said. “And I’m bullish on the industry, and cautiously watching the next six quarters.”
Hotels can improve working conditions for current and prospective employees without spending anything by listening to workers and addressing quality-of-life issues, he and Terry said.
A UCF study published in October found hospitality workers felt they were treated poorly during the pandemic and quickly laid off. They reported wanting better treatment, greater scheduling flexibility and improved stability, along with higher wages and benefits.
“It’s not that there aren’t people out there,” Terry said. “It’s that there aren’t people that are anxious to come back.”
Hotels are increasingly recognizing these needs: the national AHLA study found nearly 90% have increased wages, 71% are offering improved schedule flexibility and 43% have expanded benefits.
These changes led to properties hiring 23 more employees on average, but they are still left short by around 12 people.
“If you make your workplace pleasant and attractive and make your folks feel seen and heard and valued — which doesn’t cost anything — then you dramatically improve your ability to staff to the levels you need,” Luebkemann said.
Resorts and hotels across Orlando are already working to close staffing gaps through financial incentives and workplace changes.
Orlando-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts is a good model for how hotels can increase employment by taking care of their workers, Terry said.
Though the company’s hourly wages are on par with other local hotels, it sets itself apart by its exemplary worker treatment, he said, so it has numerous long-term employees and fewer staffing issues than comparable properties.
Rosen, which operates seven local hotels, declined an interview about staffing. Rosen employed over 4,000 people pre-pandemic but laid off 2,150 between July 2020 and January 2021, state filings showed.
Headquartered in Orlando, Marriott Vacations Worldwide operates over 120 timeshare resorts globally and nine in Central Florida.
It employs 4,500 people locally, almost 2,100 of which work in its resorts. In September 2020, it announced the layoffs of 3,300 employees due to the pandemic.
Marriot Vacations Worldwide is currently looking to hire 150 people into hourly positions and salaried management roles, said Denise Haeggberg, its senior vice president of global talent management. It is in “high need” of housekeepers and has hosted recent job fairs to fill positions.
To attract candidates, the company raised its hourly starting pay to $16.25 in March, expanded its benefits package and began offering a $1,000 signing bonus for new hourly employees and a referral bonus of $600 for resort operations roles.
Employee retention at Marriott Vacation Worldwide’s Central Florida resorts has increased by 26% compared to pre-pandemic, Haeggberg said, and 22% of employees have been with the company for over 10 years.
Staffing numbers also do not appear to be affecting timeshare owners’ experiences, with a May survey reporting the highest levels of owner satisfaction in over a year, she added.
One of Orlando’s largest hotel operators, Walt Disney World, runs 31 hotels with almost 29,000 rooms.
Resort spokespeople have not released specific hotel employee numbers or disclosed whether it has a shortage, though executives said hospitality staffing has been difficult as the company is dealing with “rising wages” in a “tighter labor market.”
CEO Bob Chapek and CFO Christine McCarthy said Disney has not had issues attracting or retaining park employees, with 85% of workers returning after being recalled. Disney laid off at least 18,000 workers across the Orlando resort and furloughed thousands more during the pandemic’s first year.
Disney World’s housekeepers and food and beverage employees’ union, Unite Here Local 737, had 17,691 members as of late May. This marked a near-return to pre-pandemic staffing levels, union president Jeremy Haicken said.
The resort’s hotel positions have recently been experiencing high turnover, in keeping with trends across Central Florida, he said. Disney is currently offering $1,000 hiring bonuses for housekeeping positions and hosting job fairs for these roles.
“Because wages in hospitality are not keeping up with the skyrocketing costs of rent, food and gas, workers move to new jobs in the hope of finding a salary they can live on,” he said in a statement.
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