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Staffing Shortages Pose a Threat to Hotels’ Budding Recovery

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Travelers this summer could notice something they may not have seen before: The person who checked them in is the same person who helps clean their room.

Hotels say they are struggling to hire enough housekeepers, kitchen staff and other hourly workers—including the ones they laid off early in the Covid-19 pandemic—ahead of an anticipated upswing in leisure travel.

“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. 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.

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-plus-hour workweek on housekeeping tasks when it gets busy. He drives the laundry truck, cleans guest rooms, stocks linen closets and performs other duties he did for training purposes before the pandemic.

David Mariotti says he spends about half of his 50-plus-hour workweek on housekeeping tasks when it gets busy.

The pandemic has shifted where and how people work, and as the economy moves toward broader reopenings, hotels and the rest of the service industry are struggling to staff up. That is despite offering perks like higher wages, sign-on and retention bonuses and more flexible work schedules, hotel managers and owners say.

Failing to hire enough workers risks hotels having to limit guest stays amid rising demand that has pushed national occupancy levels back above 50% in the past couple of months after the hotel industry suffered its hardest year ever in 2020.

Part of the hiring problem may be that owners and workers disagree over the main causes of the staffing challenge, and how to resolve it.

Some laid-off hospitality workers have moved on to other industries. Hotels say they are competing with neighboring giants, such as

Amazon.com Inc.

warehouses, that might be offering better wages.

“We have seen some of our applicant flow that we would typically assume would come and work for us that are…looking elsewhere,” said Eric Habermann, chief operating officer of Pyramid Hotel Group, which manages about 100 hotels.

Hotel owners also say enhanced unemployment benefits from the government are disincentivizing the return to work.

Labor advocates counter that many workers, particularly women, are finding it difficult to work outside the home when only a portion of the largest U.S. school districts have reopened.

Laura Conahan, the resort’s assistant general manager, talking with a guest in the lobby.

Higher pay and benefits that outweigh the amount received through jobless benefits are key to bringing back workers, especially in states with the lowest minimum wages, said

D. Taylor,

international president of hotel union Unite Here.

“They want to have much more assurances that they’re not going to be discarded like old shoes,” Mr. Taylor said. He added that there are laid-off union members who haven’t been rehired.

Remington initially opposed the idea of sign-on bonuses, fearing that existing employees would request similar compensation, Mr. Dean said. But he said the company now sees the need to follow suit with others in the industry as well as non-hospitality companies. “It’s something we have to do, and it’s definitely going to impact profitability,” he said.

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Property owner Pebblebrook Hotel Trust is offering sign-on bonuses selectively, and they haven’t always been strong enough to bring back workers, finance chief

Raymond Martz

said.

Hospitality jobs are rising but are still lower than a year ago. On the job site Indeed, hospitality and tourism job postings were 6.7% lower as of May 14 than on Feb. 1, 2020.

Getting applicants to show up poses another challenge, said Michael Marshall, owner and chief executive of hotel-management company Marshall Hotels & Resorts Inc. The company’s roughly 70 hotels had laid off almost half of their nearly 3,000-person staff, and they have regained about 600 people, Mr. Marshall said.

“It’s [a] really difficult job; it’s very physical in nature,” Mr. Marshall said of housekeeping positions. “You could set up five job interviews for a day, and maybe two people would show up.”

The beach near One Ocean Resort & Spa. The resort’s management company has about 500 open positions across its 78 properties.

Still, analysts say, issues around worker availability are likely to ease as the country reopens. “We’ll see labor supply recover in the summer and through the end of the year just as the economy reopens, as people feel safe returning to the workplace,” said Daniel Zhao, a senior economist at job site Glassdoor Inc.

The staffing issue could become more of a customer-service problem when guests complain through sites like Tripadvisor and

Yelp,

said C. Patrick Scholes, a lodging analyst at Truist Securities Inc.

“If you’re starting to get bad reviews, it’s going to make it harder to fill your hotel,” Mr. Scholes said.

Write to Dave Sebastian at dave.sebastian@wsj.com

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