Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

One of the vexing problems for Florida lodging operators has been the short supply of hotel workers amid the booming demand from pandemic-restless tourists.

The mismatch had some hotels closing entire floors for lack of housekeepers or limiting the number of times that bedsheets would be changed during a guest's stay.

In March, employment in "accommodations" jobs as grouped by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity was down 40% from March 2020.

But there are tentative signs that the labor crunch may be easing this summer, as more workers get vaccinated and incentives to stay home diminish.

• Related: Hospitality companies scramble to fill gaps in the workforce

In particular, some labor economists and politicians have argued that extra unemployment insurance benefits available during the pandemic have made staying home competitive with going back to work.

On June 26, Florida became one of 26 states to end the $300 weekly federal payments that augment the $275 maximum state benefit available to furloughed workers. The benefits in other states run until September.

Job data suggest that more people are rejoining the workforce in states that have ended the benefit early, although the first data for Florida since the change won't be ready until later this month.

"It's better than it was two months ago, that's for sure," said Scott DiPietro, area regional manager at the 99-room Home2Home Suites by Hilton in Stuart. DiPietro said more people are coming in looking for work. "You just kind of get the feeling [of recovery]," he said.

In withdrawing the federal benefit, Florida cited 14 consecutive months of job growth, reducing the need for the benefit. It said Florida's current 5% unemployment rate is below the national average.

But some Floridians feel left behind. Ten Broward County residents recently sued the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, saying the premature end to the benefit isn't allowed by Florida law. The suit says statutes require Florida to "secure for this state all advantages available under the provisions of federal law relating to reemployment assistance."

In a statement, the agency said Florida's move conforms to U.S. Labor Department policies.

Other hoteliers said the end of the extended benefit coincided with an uptick in online and walk-in applications for work. "The timing definitely aligns," said Lisa Lombardo, chief people and culture officer at HDG Group in Ocala. "We are seeing more applications coming in and that leaves us with more options."

Even so, full employment remains elusive at HDG which operates franchised hotels in mostly midsize markets throughout Florida. The company has improved its medical, vision and dental benefits as a result and eased some of its pre-hiring requirements, she said.

Lombardo said HDG has also begun a candidate referral bonus that gives an initial hiring bonus to the new employee after 30 days in the job but then gives a second and third bonus amount at 60 and 90 days to an employee that makes a successful referral.

HDG has also made a deal with a next-day-pay firm to provide services at no cost to employees at some hotels. The services front up to 50% of an employee's hourly pay the day after it is earned, with the balance received on pay day.

"They don't have to elect to do it," Lombaro said, "but if they want to it's available."

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