hospitality worker

Special Series: COVID-19 and the Workforce Crisis

This post is part of a special series about the workforce challenges our region faces and how we’re partnering to address them. 

Last week’s employment data from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development shows September job gains are the largest since December 2020.  But underneath these gains are stark disparities that are creating new urgency to expand workforce development programs to ensure an equitable economic recovery.  While recent job gains show promise, there are underlying factors that we must address now so that workers and their families emerge from the crisis more resilient and stronger than ever. 

For example, many workers in our region remain underemployed with reduced hours and are struggling to make ends meet. United Way’s Financial Opportunity Center partners – organizations in Boston and our region’s gateway cities focused on financial coaching and asset building – tell us they are emerging from the pandemic much more focused on creating pathways to living wages for people in our communities.  Additional strategies include tapping into the growing green jobs and careers, digital literacy and equitable access to technology, and promoting accessing benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit for working families to build savings and pay for childcare. 

In a special series, we’re highlighting workforce challenges our region faces. Addressing these challenges will be fundamental to a more equitable recovery. In this post, we’re looking at what’s ahead for workers in the Hospitality industry, which has been devasted by the economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.  In future posts, we will also focus on how we’re partnering to diversify the region’s STEM workforce and increase the availability of childcare so families can go back to work.  Finallywe’ll examine some of the systemic solutions being put forward by some of our region’s experts in the workforce development field. 

The hospitality industry, which includes those employed by the region’s hotels as well as gaming and sports facilities, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis and the timeline for recovery is uncertain According to the Boston Indicators Report supported by United Way, roughly a third of the 341,600 net jobs that Massachusetts lost between February 2020 and January 2021 were in the foodservice and accommodations category.

During the height of the pandemic, 90% of hotel workers were unemployed. Last year, United Way and BEST HTC partnered to launch the Hospitality Workers Emergency Fund, and together we provided 2,103 families with grocery store gift cards. As our region continues to grapple with the lasting impacts of the health and economic crisis, it’s going to take much more than emergency food assistance to help our hospitality community emerge stronger and more prepared for the future.  

Although the majority of UNITE HERE Local 26 hospitality workers are back at work, most are only working 65% of the hours they were working pre-pandemic, and it is not enough to provide a stable income.  Tourism increased this past summer, but hotels were still at only 40-50% occupancy on average.

Now, hospitality workers are currently facing further difficulties, with the impact of the Delta variant on tourism, the slow winter season, and exhausted unemployment benefits. 

“These are earnest people who want to work, and they are now facing significant barriers to reemployment,” says Joan Abbot of BEST HTC.  “Now is the time to ensure individuals can access critical workforce supports such as improving English skills, creating a resume and finding a new job that pays a living wage.” 

United Way’s Hospitality Worker’s Emergency Fund, for example, will have a new focus on leveraging the combined infrastructure, experience, tools, and track record to help people get new jobs.  Funds raised will enable BEST HTC to establish re-employment services that will include: assistance with setting up an email account if the individual does not have one, creating and updating a resume, navigating employer career sites, finding relevant jobs, submitting online applications and coaching through telephone and virtual interviews.

United Way is grateful to partner with BEST Hospitality Training to lift up the specific concerns of hospitality workers who are so essential to our region’s vitality,” says Sarah Bartley. “Together we are on the frontlines, supporting workers as they pursue new opportunities to provide for their families.” 

Next in this series: How we’re working to address the challenges facing childcare sector and its impact on our region’s workforce.