(KEY WEST, FL) Bobi Lo Re is looking for people to staff his upscale, exclusive, and posh Key West resort. As the country moves post-pandemic, the Florida hotelier says clientele is plentiful at Island House. Yet, applicants for more than a dozen openings at the tropical oasis are few and far between. Lo Re is not alone, as hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs up and down the coast and across the country echo similar sentiments and tales of woe when it comes to finding employees.

The leisure and hospitality industry–collectively is still in a deep financial hole—especially when compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to recent statistics from the Department of Labor and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA)–an industry trade group based in Washington—more than 3.1 million leisure and hospitality jobs vanished during the pandemic. About 200 hotels closed permanently in New York City. In New Jersey, about 37,000 direct hotel-related jobs vanished —and nearly 90,000 industry-related jobs faded. Similarly, Florida saw nearly 40,000 hospitality jobs disappear.

The industry as a whole added about 292,000 jobs in May, with roughly 200,000 of those jobs being in restaurants, bars, and hotels. However, overall employment is still down about 2.5 million jobs—down from pre-pandemic rates and more than any other industry. Some people that may have worked in the hospitality industry have opted for jobs with fewer health risks. However, many hoteliers and other small business owners contend the difficulty in finding workers is due to overly generous federal unemployment benefits—including an extra $300 in benefits in addition to regular weekly benefits. The extended benefits will expire in early September.

To expand the labor pool, recently introduced bipartisan legislation—Save Hotel Jobs Act and Returning Worker Exception Act of 2021—offers a big safety net to the industry. Revisions to the H-2B non-immigrant visa program allow employers to hire foreign workers to fill immediate and ongoing labor needs are underway. For example, the Labor Department maintains a publicly accessible online job registry. Additionally, the legislation would exempt returning workers from an antiquated financial cap system and enable small businesses to fulfill their immediate labor needs. measures

“As lodging industry employers around the nation grapple with labor shortages, a steady stream of prospective employees is key to bringing back the jobs wiped out due the pandemic,” said Brian Crawford, executive vice president of Government Affairs at the (AHLA). Crawford is also co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition. He added that needed reforms and clarity to the program with a niche focus on the leisure and hospitality industry is crucial. “No industry has been more affected by the pandemic than hospitality.”

Many agreed.

“I have experienced firsthand cancelled reservations and a downturn in revenue,” said Rakesh Patel, owner of Scottish Inns & Suites in Bordentown, NJ. “Reduction in occupancy and sales tax or reilief from those would be a massive help,” Patel said. He also cited New Jersey’s high tax on hotel, sales, and occupancy taxes as additional obstacles for Garden state hoteliers. For example, the state sales tax in New Jersey is 6.625 percent. A transient tax is imposed. And a state law mandated in 2003 requires that 40 percent of lodging taxes be split between the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the state Historical Commission, and the NJ Cultural Trust and Tourism promotion. In Florida, the state general sales tax is 6 percent, and hotel guests pay a bed tax of 5 percent.

Contrarily, Lo Re is at the forefront of the industry and has managed to navigate his resort—Island House—through the pandemic, despite a staffing shortage. Business is booming. “Since President Biden’s inauguration we have seen the best occupancy since before the pandemic. We recorded record revenues in the months of April and May and we project June through August to be among the best ever for those months.”

As for pre and post-pandemic initiatives implemented by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lo Re contends some of the moves by the 2024 Republican Presidential hurt businesses. For example, the premature lifting of masks, social distancing restrictions, and allowing cruise ships to dock at various ports across the state while infection rates were increasing was dangerous. Lo Re said as a successful entrepreneur; he was encouraged by fellow businessmen and others to support and laud the efforts of the governor to help small businesses throughout the pandemic. Lo Re did not. “I think he caused unnecessary risks,
by dismissing or ignoring dangerous aspects of the pandemic,” he said. “There is a way to remain business-friendly and still keep the greater good of our society and community intact.”

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