Hospitality workers struggle as unemployment drags on in pandemic

In his 35 years in this country, Hernan Gonzalez had never been without a job. He’s spent his life in hospitality because “it’s what Miami is all about,” said Gonzalez. That all changed in March, when he was laid off after 16 years as a server and sommelier at the Diplomat, a beachfront resort in Hollywood.

At 58 years old, Gonzalez said he feels ill-equipped to shift away from a career that’s taken up four decades of his life.

Gonzalez considers himself lucky. Some of his coworkers are cramming into a single unit with other families to make ends meet. He and his wife are able to live on her retail salary. But with his son in college this fall, Gonzalez is worried about how he’ll help him pay for school.

“In Miami, it’s very difficult to make it on $275 dollars a week,” said Gonzalez, referring to Florida’s unemployment compensation payment. The federal boost of $600 per week is gone. “It’s basically impossible to survive with that money.”

He’s among the estimated 37.2 million American workers who are in industries that have heavily slashed employment due to COVID-19. Of that number, nearly 10 million people — about one in four — are employed in restaurants and bars, according to a report from the Brookings Institute.

In tourism-reliant Miami-Dade, roughly 109,400 were employed in accommodation and food services as of August. That’s 25% fewer workers than the same time last year, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Since March, tens of thousands have been laid off; others are facing reduced hours. As of late September, hotels were operating at about 37% occupancy, says hotel tracking firm STR, implying job instability for those who do have jobs.

A recent report by the American Hotel and Lodging Association points to a looming wave of hotel foreclosures. Some experts have predicted that tourism may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 — potentially leaving many without jobs for the foreseeable future. Workers such as Gonzalez, one of roughly 700 union workers at the Diplomat, will soon find themselves without healthcare when their benefits run out in October. There’s still no word of when their employer will give them back their jobs.

“No one expected this,” said Santra Denis, interim executive director for the Miami Workers Center, a local nonprofit and advocacy group. “For people who work day-to-day without any benefits or fallback, it’s traumatizing. They’re looking at each other at home like, how are we going to survive?”

One Fontainebleau employee tells of coworkers who are running through their savings, deferring mortgages or breaking leases to move in with friends and family as they weather the storm. Gonzalez said coworkers are leaning on each other to raise funds for colleagues in desperate need. Many of his coworkers rely on food banks to keep their families fed.

Workers at restaurants throughout South Florida have suffered job losses and reduced hours. Restaurants, including Tap 42 in Doral, were allowed to reopen at limited capacity in May. CHARLES TRAINOR JR [email protected]

Local agencies are trying to fill the gap.

The SOBEWFF & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund has raised $1.6 million through donations and drive-through bake sales; it went to businesses rather than individuals.

The Miami-Dade Beacon Council, the county’s economic development agency, launched MiamiTech.Works, an online portal to help workers find local job listings and training opportunities in technology.

In August, Miami Dade College received $3 million from the county for the Hotel Worker Relief Grant Program. The program provides $1,000 to up to 2,500 eligible employees who complete a two-day virtual training workshop in English, Spanish or Haitian Creole. Displaced hotel workers may apply online at Slots for the grant were allocated to hotels throughout the county based on size.

Participants receive a $500 check once they’re approved for the program and another $500 when they complete the 8-hour, two-day virtual training. The workshop, which covers topics related to customer service in a pandemic and educational opportunities at the college, is only available to employees who live and work in Miami-Dade County and who lost their hotel jobs or were furloughed due to COVID-19.

Workers were notified of the program via the hotels where they worked. The workshop offers employment skills training, opportunities for advancement in the hotel industry, and exposure to other career paths.

“Obviously it’s not enough,” said Esther “Shelly” Fano, executive director of the Hospitality Institute at Miami Dade College. “If the county could provide additional funding for the displaced employees who are not fortunate enough to participate it would be fantastic. We hope we can reach out to other organizations to get additional funding because there’s such a need.”

Still, hundreds of slots remain. Low participation in the program is a symptom of the many factors affecting local workers, said Wendi Walsh, an administrator of the Unite Here union, which represents about 7,000 hotel workers in South Florida.

If you are an hourly worker on your last dime, you’re likely an immigrant to this country. English may not be your first language. Maybe you have no access to internet or to a computer — how are you supposed to know to apply to MDC to then participate in a training to then access $1,000 dollars?” Walsh said.

Still, Walsh puts the blame on federal and state governments refusing to step up to the plate.

“There are systems in place to get money into workers hands and those systems have failed,” Walsh said. “The federal government has a very easy system to give everyone $1,200. That was a perfectly good system, but now the counties are scrambling to try to get money into workers’ hands.”

Elena Sofia Tinis changes the sheets in a room at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne in 2006. Thousands of hospitality workers have lost jobs or suffered reduced hours amid the pandemic. Joshua Prezant For the Miami Herald

Local agencies are working on driving tourism back to the region, said Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. The county recently approved $5 million in CARES Act money for the bureau to launch a tourism campaign.

“Our primary mission is to get the engine of tourism back in the community, once it’s humming then the jobs start coming back,” Aedo said.

Miami-Dade County is now in Phase 3 of the reopening, with bars and restaurants operating at full capacity.

“I’m really hoping that we’re able to rehire the majority of [employees], but for those that we can’t rehire we’ll be able to offer services [Miami Dade College] has and there are other jobs out there where skills can easily transfer,” said Wendy Kallergis, president and chief executive officer of Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association. Kallergis pointed to grocery stores and hospitals as places where hospitality workers may find work.

“We’ve lost so many jobs,” said Ned Murray, director of the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. “The question is, where do those workers go?”

An economic shock such as COVID-19 causes industries to restructure and invest in cost-saving technology — which usually means fewer workers, Murray said. He pointed to the Great Recession of 2008 when banks began to increasingly rely on contract workers.

“We’re going to see a lot more of that. It’s going to be a very difficult time,” Murray said. “Unemployment is going to stay very high for a long time.”

Still, confidence that the industry will recover remains high, said Michael Cheng, dean of FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“It’s going to be a slow gradual recovery,” Cheng said. “It may look terrible at the moment, but it will bounce back. 2021 is when real recovery happens, but everybody’s predicting 2022, 2023 for a full recovery.”

Meanwhile, Cheng said the college is reminding his students that they have transferable skills that they can easily pivot to other industries in the meantime.

This year’s enrollment in FIU’s hospitality school is on par with last fall’s, with roughly 1,778 students enrolled this fall as of early September, according to Cheng. The college is also encouraging students to get a master’s. Enrollment in the graduate program has increased by 20%, he said.

Alejandro Carro, a laid-off bartender, has moved back in with his parents and plans to start a podcast on bartending. He set up a podcasting mic, lights, and laptop in his bedroom hoping to create a revenue stream while many hospitality workers struggle to make a living. Carl Juste [email protected]

Miami native Juliette Saputo, 26, has been in the industry since she was 15. She was three weeks into a new job as beverage director at the Corner Bar in downtown Miami when the pandemic hit; she hasn’t worked since. She’s thinking of switching careers but doesn’t have experience in anything else.

The hospitality industry was supposed to be recession proof, that’s what her coworkers who are industry veterans always told her.

“But then,” said Saputo, “the one thing that could ever kill the industry comes along.”

She has no debt or student loans, Saputo said, and doesn’t want to start accumulating them now.

Barbering is on her mind. “People go to a bar to talk about their problems; they do the same when they go to a barbershop,” he reasoned.

For now, nonprofits are filling in some of the gaps. The Workers Center has partnered with the National Domestic Worker Alliance to provide workers with cash assistance and personal protective equipment. Recognizing the emotional toll that the pandemic has taken on workers locally, the center has also started support groups via WhatsApp in Spanish and Haitian Creole. A monthly meditation workshop to help workers destress is also ongoing.

Many workers are relying on food banks to survive, said Denis. In the chat groups, unemployed housekeepers share resources or alert each other to potential jobs cleaning homes where their skills can easily transfer, she added.

Miami-Dade is accepting applications for a second round of payments of a tenant program funded through the CARES Act. The program covers up to three months’ worth of rent for applicants who meet income requirements. The state’s eviction moratorium, which was helping many workers make it through, said Denis, expired Oct. 1.

“Nonprofits are holding the levies,” said Denis. “The burden is being carried by the social services safety net; but that can only get people so far.“

But even nonprofit support is running low. United Way’s Miami Pandemic Response Fund, which in March distributed more than $3.6 million to individuals and local businesses impacted by the virus, nearly ran out of money within five days.

“There’s no work for people right now, “ said Denis. “Once the eviction moratorium is up, people will be out on the streets. If you’re working a minimum-wage job and you haven’t worked for five months, how do you catch up on rent? How? There’s no way you can catch up.”

Hernan Gonzalez has been in hospitality for nearly 40 years as a server and sommelier, but in March he lost his job at the Diplomat Hotel and hasn’t worked since. Al Diaz [email protected]

Gonzalez says he misses his job and the way it allowed him to light up the room by offering top notch hospitality.

“I’m hoping next year I can get my job back,” Gonzalez said. “But with the way things are happening, I don’t see that window that’s going to guarantee that I’m going to have a job next year.”

Bartender Alejandro Carro, too, is hoping for a return.

He joined the industry three and a half years ago after a shoulder injury cut short the work he was doing toward becoming an EMT. For Carro, 32, the job that used to consume 60-hour workweeks turned to a single shift a week. He knew things were bad when, on a Saturday night in April, he didn’t make a single drink.

Now he spends his days working odd jobs. He’s painted fences for neighbors and helped people get rid of old appliances. He applies for any job he feels even remotely qualified for.

He bought a microphone and is toying with the idea of making a podcast about bartending. The episodes would teach people bartending tricks to serve drinks at home and feature casual conversations with other bartenders.

“I realize work in the industry may not happen for some time,” said Carro, whose left arm bears a tattoo of a cocktail. “But I really want to make a career out of it.”

Still, the prospect of pivoting to a new career — or a different city — is not off the table, he said.

“If my old job is there I’m springing back to that with joy in my heart,” Carro said. “But I also have to be realistic about the situation. It may be I might fall into a line of work I didn’t consider.”

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