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California Wine Country hotels reopen but struggle to rehire workers

Forcing the issue

A bill introduced in February would require some employers in the hospitality industry, including hotels, to rehire workers who were laid off because of COVID-19. Under Assembly Bill 1074, employers would have to rehire workers who served a minimum of six months in 2019, in the same or similar position.

The California Hotel & Lodging Association says the bill should go further by providing financial assistance to hotels as they reopen.

The California Chamber of Commerce, however, has opposed the legislation, stating it would micromanage the rehiring process.

Sources: The Sacramento Bee, California Legislative Information

As North Bay hotels move to reopen after a year of repeated pandemic-related shutdowns, they’re facing a new challenge: finding enough workers.

Many furloughed workers are choosing not to come back, opting instead to work in a different industry or not work at all, while others have left the area.

Everything on the table

Hotel Trio has been more than 90% booked since February, largely because it’s been housing about 75 traveling nurses who are in the county giving vaccines, explained General Manager Scott Satterfield. The nurses are starting to trickle out and will be mostly gone by mid-June, he said, but those vacancies are now being offset by the return of weekend leisure travelers.

“We have tried to bring back all the staff that we had to furlough,” Satterfield said, noting the hotel last year dropped from a staff of 45 to 12. “We're just really having a tough time getting folks to fill the positions.”

The hotel has had some success bringing back housekeepers but needs more, along with front office staff and engineering/maintenance workers, he said.

To help entice qualified job candidates, Hotel Trio is offering a starting wage of $16.50 per hour across the board, significantly higher than the city’s minimum wage of $14 per hour.

“Even at $16.50, we're still having trouble getting people here,” he said.

So the hotel doubled down.

Anyone who refers a job candidate who gets hired and stays two weeks will get $150, then another $150 if the new employee stays 90 days, Satterfield said. Even the new employee gets a bonus if they stay 30 days, to the tune of $250.

But even the incentives aren’t working, said Satterfield, who is hardly alone.

Since becoming president in January of the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District, Satterfield has had the opportunity to speak with neighboring hoteliers and learned many — including Hotel Trio — are turning to contract labor.

At $23 per hour for a housekeeper, it’s not a cheap solution, he said.

“All of the hotels are buying into that,” Satterfield said, noting the new Montage Healdsburg has used contract labor to build up much of its staff.

Roles to fill

In the town of Sonoma, filling jobs hasn’t been any easier at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, said Michelle Heston, executive regional director of public relations.

“We've lost some amazing talent, some due to attrition and some are still waiting for (our business) to return to normal levels,” Heston said, noting business is currently back to about 50%, when averaging weekend highs with midweek lows.

The Fairmont, which also has seen many of its employees leave the state, has a number of roles to fill, including leadership positions, front desk agents and supervisors, food and beverage workers and massage therapists, she said.

The hotel also is in the process of contacting furloughed employees, Heston said. She declined to state the number of staffers now versus pre-pandemic.

Stretching resources

“Over the past several weeks, we’ve received inquiries to fill housekeeping and hospitality roles,” said Joe Madigan, CEO of Sonoma-based Nelson Staffing. “This is a welcome trend, but it also reflects that the candidate market remains very tight. We are actively looking for people to fill open positions within the hotel and hospitality industry.”

Madigan noted the lack of candidates has resulted in at least one hotel client pulling in their general manager to tend bar.

And some people are not yet in full job-search mode because COVID-19 stimulus checks have reduced the urgency to return to work, he said.

Meanwhile, the Yountville Chamber of Commerce is holding a virtual hospitality job fair on Thursday, beginning at 12:15 p.m., said Jessica Penman, director of community relations.

The fair will bring together Napa Valley wineries, restaurants and hotels with immediate openings and people looking for work, Penman said, adding Sonoma County job opportunities also will be in the mix.

But something unusual has happened.

“Almost all of our presenters right now are hotels, which is definitely different than what we saw when we did this in July,” Penman said. “One thing we’ve definitely seen is that it took hotels a little longer to get back up and running. They’ve been shuttered a lot longer and are finding it harder to bring people back.”

Hotels slated to participate in the job far include Bardessono Hotel and Spa, Carneros Resort, Hotel Yountville and Senza Hotel, according to Penman.

On the bright side

Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, which employed approximately 54 people before the pandemic, so far has been able to bring back half of its furloughed employees to operate the guest rooms, pools and front desk, said General Manager Mike Lennon.

Once the spa is back up and running, he expects to bring back the remaining staff.

“We've kept in touch with pretty much everybody that's on payroll,” Lennon said. “And for those who are on the layoff, we’ve maintained their health care benefits.”

More help wanted

Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa in Sausalito is looking for front desk agents and housekeeping staff, said General Manager Pat Sorber.

“From an occupancy standpoint, we’ve gone from 10% occupancy up to between 80% and 90% on the weekends right now, so, it’s really moved quite a bit,” she said. “Right now, some of our people are working a six-day workweek to make it happen.”

The hotel pre-pandemic employed about 45 people and currently staffs “in the high 30s,” Sorber said.

Like Hotel Trio, Casa Madrona is putting incentives on the table to help draw qualified job candidates. She declined to state the amount, but said a portion of the reward is given when a candidate is hired, and the remaining balance is paid after the new hire completes 90 days.

“We are going through the process right now of actually interviewing a couple (of people) that have been referred from current employees,” Sorber said.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

Forcing the issue

A bill introduced in February would require some employers in the hospitality industry, including hotels, to rehire workers who were laid off because of COVID-19. Under Assembly Bill 1074, employers would have to rehire workers who served a minimum of six months in 2019, in the same or similar position.

The California Hotel & Lodging Association says the bill should go further by providing financial assistance to hotels as they reopen.

The California Chamber of Commerce, however, has opposed the legislation, stating it would micromanage the rehiring process.

Sources: The Sacramento Bee, California Legislative Information

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