San Francisco’s tourists are returning, but hotel workers mostly aren’t

San Francisco’s beleaguered tourism industry got good news when hotels hit their highest occupancy rate — 76% — since before the pandemic when the Game Developers Conference, the NCAA basketball tournament and a top sailing race were in town last month.

But that tells only part of the story. While more tourists are enjoying their San Francisco vacations, many of the people who would be serving them in the city’s hotels remain out of work.

Nearly half of the 9,000 people who work in San Francisco’s hotels — more than 60% of them immigrants— haven’t been asked to return to their jobs full time.

That would cut into the hotel’s profit margins, say union leaders who represent the workers. The hotels respond that they’re hiring based on what they need, and travel industry leaders say San Francisco is only starting to recover.

Before the pandemic, the city’s hotel occupancy rate was second only to New York’s. Now, it has consistently ranked 25th out of the nation’s top 25 markets, according to officials with SF Travel, the city’s travel bureau. That’s one reason Mayor London Breed just returned from a 10-day European trip to drum up business for the tourism industry that is so key to the city’s economy — and its tax base.

Back home, hotel workers are hurting badly. These are well-paid, blue-collar jobs that enable people to eke out a life in an expensive, white-collar city. Housekeepers make $28 an hour and have access to top-of-the-line health care benefits.

But those benefits have run out for those who haven’t been called back to work; the union had extended them through 2020. Now, with government unemployment subsidies ending, many workers can’t afford to sit by the phone waiting for a call to return to work.

They aren’t part of the Great Resignation, where mostly privileged Americans have chosen to leave their jobs during the pandemic. Nor are they sitting home, idly collecting benefits, as some political narratives like to cast them. Those benefits are gone.

These folks want to get back to work full time.

Some who can’t, like Christopher Flores, are having to make major lifestyle changes.

Flores, 46, has worked for the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco since 2014. He cleans common areas in the hotel and enjoys his job. He earned nearly $28 an hour and paid $10 a month for health care for his family, including his two teenage daughters. His wife was a housekeeper at a different hotel and made about the same amount.

But their work disappeared after the pandemic struck. Flores’ wife found a new job at a different hotel — for only $24 an hour — but he hasn’t. He has been getting called in to work a couple days a month, but would love to be back full time.

“I have been calling my managers and saying that if you need manpower, I am available. Any time of the day,” Flores told me.

At first he was hesitant to take a new job, for fear that he wouldn’t be able to answer the call back to his old one. He has worked gig jobs during the day, like delivering for DoorDash, to keep his family afloat.

Eight months ago, Flores took a job as a parking garage attendant. He works midnight to 7 a.m. and makes $19 an hour, with no benefits.

“I don’t have a choice. I need a job,” Flores, a first-generation Filipino American and a citizen, said. “The Hilton isn’t calling me back (full time). So that’s the only job I got.”

Fortunately, his wife’s new job has health benefits. Nevertheless, their family can no longer afford the Tenderloin apartment they were living in.

Last week, they moved to a two-bedroom apartment that is $500 a month cheaper.

Flores’ story isn’t unusual. Many hotel workers remained at home during that week last month when hotels filled up.

At the Hilton Union Square, hotel occupancy was 58%, but only 34% of housekeepers were back at work full time, according to estimates provided by UNITE HERE Local 2, the hotel workers union. The W San Francisco hotel was 83% full, but only 67% of its workers were back on the job. The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel was at 81% of capacity, but only 55% of its housekeepers were back on the job.

“Hilton San Francisco is continually assessing staffing needs based on a forward view of bookings and the local business environment,” a spokesperson for the Hilton wrote in an email. The Hotel Council of San Francisco, a trade organization that represents hotels that have roughly two-thirds of the city’s rooms but does not negotiate for them, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, many hotel workers wait to be called. And wait.

“Folks are sitting on the bench,” Anand Singh, president of Unite Here Local 2, told me. “They want to come back to work, they want to work in the hotels. They want to be part of this recovery.

“But when they’re cut out of the equation, you’re eliminating good middle-class jobs in San Francisco, and that is the last thing our city needs in order to recover economically,” Singh said.

Singh is among labor leaders who wonder whether employers’ reticence to call housekeepers back is part of a larger national plan to cut labor costs post-pandemic.

In an earnings call last year, Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said, “The work we’re doing right now in every one of our brands … is about making them higher-margin businesses and creating more labor efficiencies, particularly in the areas of housekeeping, food and beverage and other areas.

“When we get out of the crisis, those businesses will be higher-margin and require less labor than they did pre-COVID,” Nassetta said.

Both San Francisco and the state have passed legislation designed to create a right to re-employment for those in the hospitality sector who lost their jobs during the pandemic. It requires generally larger employers to offer people their jobs back after they have been laid off because of the pandemic, when they are hiring for the same or a similar position.

But, Singh said, the problem is that employers don’t have to recall anyone unless they say that they’re needed.

“I wouldn’t say it’s toothless. I think that it certainly has its place,” Singh said. “The problem is, it doesn’t compel hotel employers from doing the kind of behavior that we’re seeing.”

San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar, who spearheaded the city’s right-to-return legislation, is concerned. He told me he has asked the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to provide an update on whether hotels are complying with the re-employment requirement.

“It’s extremely important that the hotels treat their workers fairly and ensure that the rights of workers and the labor standards are maintained,” Mar said.

Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, the city’s tourism bureau, is concerned about the effect the downturn has had on workers, too.

While he was encouraged by last month’s rebound, he told me, “It’s going to take more of just a weekend of high occupancy … you can’t bring full-time staff people back for one weekend.”

Even though domestic tourists may be returning, those aren’t the big spenders. San Francisco tourism is driven by conventions and international travelers. D’Alessandro said 60% of all tourism spending in 2019 was by international visitors. “And that’s going to be slow to come back,” he said.

The convention business — which helps to fill big banquet halls that demand more hospitality workers to staff — remains down 60% from its record 2019 level. Typically, D’Alessandro said, “you’d have conventions coming in every week or every other week. And it’s going to be a while before we see that again.”

How soon? D’Alessandro said June will be a “really critical month.” A number of major conventions are coming to town, the European travel season will be starting, and more people will be back in the office — and hopefully traveling on business.

“If we have a really robust June, it’s going to help us push through the rest of the year forward,” D’Alessandro told me. “However, we’re not anticipating to see overall 2019 levels until 2024.”

Meanwhile, August is another bellwether month for San Francisco’s hotel workers. Their union contract expires Aug. 14. If that June boom doesn’t materialize, the wait to return to work could last a lot longer.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: Twitter: @joegarofoli

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