Labor shortage breeds fierce competition in Chicago's hospitality industry, with promises of cash and on-the-spot job offers

When an understaffed Chicago-area restaurant manager snuck into Lucca Osteria in Oak Brook on a recent Friday with a handful of cash, the brazen poaching of workers seemed straight out of the pages of Nelson Algren.

“It was the end of May, the third week we were open, and I got a call from my partner, who was furious, and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but two of our bus attendants came over and said this guy told them they were guaranteed $1,000 a week to go to tables in his restaurant, and they were going.’ So they walked away and left us in the lurch,” said Steven Hartenstein, owner of Lucca Osteria and COO/Director of Business Development for Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants.

“We’re all in the same boat, so it’s hard to believe that some people are stealing workers from their friends,” Hartenstein said. “People can steal your employees, your recipes, and your brand, but they can’t steal your hospitality and integrity.”

While “recruiting” workers from other restaurateurs by flashing $100 bills and securing lucrative pay is rare, the urgency to hire staff in Chicago’s hospitality industry has reached a fever pitch this summer, furthering what some in the business of hospitality call “survival of the fittest”. ” ambient.

The severe shortage of workers needed to ensure restaurants and hotels run smoothly is also prompting many employers to offer improved wages and benefits, along with a new effort to promote the industry as a promising career path with great potential for advancement.

As a rebound in tourism generate more hotel staysA recent survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association found that 97% of respondents in the US reported experiencing a staffing shortage, with nearly half of all hotels saying they have a “serious staffing shortage.” staff”.

The most critical staffing need is housekeeping, with 58% ranking it as their biggest challenge, and to meet demand, hotels offer a list of incentives for potential hires, with nearly 90% of hotels citing salary increases , 71% offering more flexible hours, and 43% expanding benefits, AHLA officials said.

Staffing issues have prompted the organization to launch a new campaign, “A Place to Stay,” targeting 14 cities, including Chicago, as well as Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, San Diego and Tampa.

“Those jobs are paying more than ever, with more flexibility, more benefits,” Chip Rogers, executive director of the AHLA, said in a statement. press conference in Chicago earlier this month. “The message is clear: If you want to start a career in hospitality, there’s no better time to do it, and no better place to do it, than right here in Chicago.”

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in June 2022, employment in the broader hospitality and leisure sector fell by nearly 1.3 million jobs, or 7.8%, in compared to February 2020. US hotels employed 2.3 million people before the pandemic and ended 2021 with 1.8 million.

While still below pre-pandemic levels, the number of hospitality workers in Illinois is steadily increasing. The number of people employed in the sector reached 582,800 in June, an increase of almost 16% from the same month last year and the highest monthly total since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Occupational Safety of Illinois.

But there are still many vacancies. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, said one morning earlier this month that there were 3,000 job openings at Chicago hotels listed on Indeed.com only.

“Our jobs are often misunderstood as dead-end, minimum-wage jobs,” Jacobson said. “And that, frankly, is not true. The fact is that our salaries are higher than ever with more benefits than we have ever seen for our employees.”

Starting wages at most Chicago hotels are $23 an hour plus benefits, Jacobson said, adding, “People don’t realize that no matter what you’re interested in or your background in life, there’s a job. vacancy for you in a hotel. .”

In addition to health care, 401(k) plans and travel discounts, Jacobson touted the industry’s flexible schedules, which he said can accommodate parents or students who need to work irregular hours. Hotels can provide jobs for non-English speakers and, perhaps most of all, offer rapid career advancement, she said.

“Working in a hotel provides a path to the middle class for people from all Chicagoland neighborhoods and from all walks of life,” Jacobson said.

Juan Leyva, general manager of LondonHouse, said he is looking for candidates to fill several vacancies at the downtown hotel, including front-desk workers and a bartender for his LH Rooftop, a popular rooftop bar with views of the Chicago River.

“The last two years have been difficult in the hotel industry, but June was one of the best months we have had in the hotel, even since before the pandemic,” Leyva said.

“All the hotels are hiring right now, especially for front of house, which in some cases, people are hired on the spot, because if you don’t make them an offer, they’ll just move on to the competition. Leyva said.

Labor shortages have affected service, with some hotels offering housekeeping only on request; reduce the number of hotel rooms available for booking; and declining reservations or limited hours at restaurants facing a shortage of cooks and servers.

“Hotels often compete with each other to find people, and unfortunately when you don’t have the manpower, it creates a lot of customer dissatisfaction,” said Amrik Singh, an associate professor in the Fritz Knoebel School of Science at the University of Denver. Hospitality management.

Recent difficulties finding hotel workers date back to the early days of the pandemic, when Illinois lost nearly half of its hospitality industry jobs. The number of people employed in the industry plummeted from 602,600 to 329,400 between March and April 2020, according to state data.

According to Unite Here, the union that represents 300,000 workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation and airport industries, COVID-19 closures at their height gave as a result 98% of their members were in the US and Canada losing their jobs.

“Now many of them don’t want to go back, especially if they have found work in another sector, with higher wages and the option to work from home, which you can’t do with most hotel jobs. Singh said.

“When there is a labor shortage, and your industry offers the lower end of hourly wages, people will be reluctant to take those jobs, especially if they fear going back to their old employer and might end up having sex. off if there is another crisis,” Singh said.

While the US labor market this summer remains generally strong, some experts have suggested that the Federal Reserve’s decision to temper inflation by raising interest rates could cause the economy to slow, which would lead to job losses.

Mary Skoubis, a senior concierge at LondonHouse, said she had spent 20 years working for a Gold Coast hotel when she was furloughed at the start of the pandemic, then never called back to work.

“It was horrible, because I loved what he was doing, and for many years, I was his front office manager, which was a phenomenal job,” Skoubis said. “I was being fired because my job was not considered essential.”

More than a year later, in June 2021, Skoubis said he received a “phenomenal call” with a job offer from LondonHouse, which he immediately accepted.

“I’m a person who has a need to work, I couldn’t afford not to, but I’m doing what I love and working in this beautiful environment,” Skoubis said.

Along with the upscale atmosphere offered at some of downtown’s fanciest hotels, industry advocates say hospitality can also offer great opportunities for advancement, with some managers rising through the ranks from entry-level positions.

Jeovanny Arellano, LondonHouse’s chief operating officer, said he started cleaning a suburban hotel when he was a college computer science student. Instead of being put off by the hard work, he quickly “fell in love with the hospitality.”

“Chicago is a great city, but when it comes to the hospitality industry, everyone knows each other,” said Arellano, 35, who was hired by Leyva for his current job at LondonHouse.

Robert Habeeb, CEO of Maverick Hotels and Restaurants, which counts the Offshore Rooftop and Bar and Sable on Navy Pier among its properties, said that while the hotel industry is always hiring, “the biggest challenge during this busy summer is keeping your operations up and running.” with all the staff.

“The market is so competitive right now, the demand for staff is increasing, and even once workers are hired, you have to fight to keep them from leaving,” Habeeb said. “Everyone can have a bad day at work, but now that there are so many jobs, some employees are quick to jump ship.”

While the shameless tactics of the recently seen “recruiter” handing out cash to entice bus boys may be extreme, Habeeb said it underscores the desperation facing an industry for which customer service is its cornerstone. .

“When we finally got everything cleared and the pandemic restrictions were lifted, people rushed back,” Habeeb said. “But now, wherever you go, places are short-staffed. … Part of the flower breaks off the rose, and it all goes back to COVID.”

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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