The annual struggle to find good hospitality workers in Southwest Florida begins soon for the fall season.
Regional hiring woes have been a perpetual problem in the last few years, especially compounded by the pandemic. Finding overseas workers to supplement the shortage of stateside hospitality workers has always been difficult, but the task has been made much harder in 2021 by COVID-19 travel restrictions and the usual lack of available work visas.
Hotels, restaurants and resorts typically start advertising for workers in late summer and fall, and begin sta ng and training in time for winter season, which peaks in January, February and March. Hotels start hiring overseas workers as soon as they determine their shortfalls in qualified U.S. workers.
The fun begins when hospitality managers apply to the U.S. Labor Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service for permission to hire an overseas worker; the worker applies for his U.S. work visa while in his home country.
Jillian Yanes, a Naples attorney who represents H-2B visa holders in SWFL’s hotels, restaurants and other vacation venues, said the region’s employers will nd foreign workers much tougher to hire in 2021. “Employers must sign paperwork confirming that they have a need for that particular employee,” Yanes says. “If they like the guest worker, they keep you and help you keep coming back. But with the travel restrictions, I foresee problems if employees try to re-enter.”
Though President Joe Biden quickly halted his predecessor’s so-called Muslim travel ban, the new president limited travel to the U.S. from nations where stronger variants of the coronavirus have emerged. That includes Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the European Union—countries that provide a large number of hospitality workers in Naples, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Marco Island and elsewhere in Southwest Florida.
“Through his travel restrictions, Biden is severely limiting the types of people and what countries they are coming from,” Yanes says. “Foreign workers from European nations provide services to our permanent and seasonal residents, as well as vacationers who rent hotel rooms or dine in our restaurants. If they can’t come here, a labor shortage means there are fewer people to keep the hospitality industry running at its best. It will have a detrimental impact.”
UP AGAINST A TICKING CLOCK
It is no secret that Southwest Florida’s hospitality industry had trouble finding quality employees in the years before COVID-19 hit.
Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), says, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that there are certain jobs and positions that are difficult to fill. Our members always have a hard time finding housekeepers.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 1.6 million restaurant employees nationwide are immigrants and other foreign-born individuals. Unfortunately, their visas don’t last long enough to keep hotels staffed.
“The rules are they can work for a few months, then have to be back to their country of origin,” Dover says. “That means hotels put half their visa employees on a flight and still have to make it through season. It’s not a long time to train; by the time you train them, you’re putting them on the plane back home.”
WORKER CRISIS DULLED BY FEWER TOURISTS
“In 2020, we were the largest employer of people in the state of Florida, with 1.5 million hospitality jobs,” Dover says. “Then, in March 2020, 900,000 of them were furloughed overnight. We went from 131 million tourists in Florida to 86.7 million. That’s a lot of heads in beds and restaurants missing.”
Jay Johnson, president of the Lee County chapter of the FRLA, said fewer tourists translates into lower demand for visa workers. “Due to current business levels, not one hotel I spoke with is planning on using H-2B hospitality workers this season,” says Johnson, who owns Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral. “Many have used them in the past with great success, and all are looking forward to business getting back to levels where we can use H-2B hospitality workers once again.”
The demand for workers has exceeded the supply for workers in Naples, Marco Island and other parts of Southwest Florida during the first half of 2021, said Michael D. Collins, associate professor, School of Resort and Hospitality Management at Florida Gulf Coast University. Collins, who was a hotel manager on Hilton Head Island, Myrtle Beach and other resorts for 25 years, is familiar with the visa process for guest workers.
“At least three dozen hospitality employers in Collier County alone led H-2B visa applications requesting more than 400 temporary employees in the late summer/fall of 2020, primarily for food service positions that typically pay between $12 and $20 per hour,” Collins says. “This demonstrates that a shortage of front-line domestic hospitality workers still exists in our area.”
Jennifer Castellani is the director of internal operations at Culinary Concepts, which owns and operates Chops City Grills, Yabba Island Grill, The Saloon and Pazzo! in Naples, Estero and Bonita, and she knows what it takes to find good employees.
Castellani said competition for workers was tough among the 700 restaurants and hotels in Collier County. “A couple of country clubs weren’t getting their overseas employees, so they tapped into our pool,” she says. “That reduced our ability to hire people. I can only imagine what they’re having to go through trying to obtain return H-1B or H-2B visa holders.”
NEVER ENOUGH VISAS
The large vegetable farms and citrus groves in Lee and Collier counties also reduce the pool of available workers. “There is definitely competition between the two industries for domestic labor,” says Gene McAvoy,
University of Florida’s expert on SWFL’s farming economy. “Under the terms of these visas, workers cannot switch back and forth.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the FRLA and other hospitality industry groups have for years lobbied Congress for a more responsive guest worker program. “What they need to do is let workers extend their visa on this side; flying back and forth in the middle of the season doesn’t work,” Dover says. “Our FRLA members have told us they need more visas, too. We want to work in unity to x this broken immigration system.”
One bill introduced in December by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) seeks to improve the lives of H-2B visa holders and help U.S. employers find workers stateside. Though it does not necessarily include lengthier stays in the United States or more H-2B visas, the Seasonal Worker Solidarity Act of 2020 would change the H-2B visa game for good. Such visas now tie workers to a single employer who controls their fate, but Castro’s bill, which has support of the AFL-CIO and other labor and hospitality groups, would put workers in control of their work visas.
In addition to protecting foreign workers, Castro’s bill would also help hotels and restaurants hire U.S. residents by creating an online jobs database and enhanced nationwide recruitment of U.S.-based workers. (See sidebar, Where to find hospitality workers in SWFL).
But until Congress agrees to increase how many workers it allows in, employers in hospitality, agriculture, landscaping and other low-skill jobs will have to fight over the annual nationwide pool of 66,000 visas.
“In normal times, we use every single H-2B, H-1B and J-1 visa we can get our hands on,” Dover says. “There’s never enough; we always need one more.”
WHERE TO FIND HOSPITALITY WORKERS IN SWFL
Hotels, restaurants, country clubs and other hospitality venues advertise for workers on Indeed, Ziprecruiter.com and a hundred other online databases, as well as on their company homepages, but there are other places to recruit workers in Southwest Florida.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA.org) is a good place to network for top chefs and other valuable hospitality workers, says FRLA press secretary Ashley Chambers. “The hospitality industry is a wonderful network, and many local chapters do a good job of promoting vacancies or connecting people to opportunities,” Chambers says.
In Southwest Florida, the Gulf Island Coast chapter includes hospitality members from Charlotte and Glades counties. Lee County has its own chapter, as does Collier County. All are under regional director Lois Croft. “It’s tough to nd workers right now,” Croft says. “We do what we can to help match staff with hospitality managers.”
One source is the Pro-Start program in local high schools, which teaches culinary and hospitality management skills to students. The nationwide program is available throughout Florida’s public schools.
“We work with all the high schools to generate future staff members for our hotels and other hospitality venues,” she says.
Croft also advises contacting any SWFL Chamber of Commerce and suggests the following Facebook groups to nd hospitality workers:
• 239 hospitality ninjas
• SWFL Job Openings
• Fort Myers Jobs
• SWFL Restaurant Jobs
• Naples Job List
• SWFL Help Wanted
RECRUIT FROM OTHER RESORT TOWNS
Florida Gulf Coast University, which offers a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, is good recruiting ground. “We are always getting requests for our resort and hospitality management students to work in local restaurants and other venues,” says Michael D. Collins, associate professor at FGCU’s School of Resort and Hospitality Management. The school also has a job fair in the spring and fall semesters when resorts and clubs are staffing up for their respective seasons.
Collins also suggests advertising in northern U.S. resort areas where hospitality employees might be interested in working in Naples, Fort Myers and other warmer climates in the winter.
“It’s good to recruit outside the area, such as Asheville, North Carolina, the location of the Biltmore Estate, or the Outer Banks, where hotels and resorts are numerous. The Biltmore recruited at our job fair every year. Also, other Florida locations like Orlando are good places to recruit.”
IN ADDITION TO PUTTING WORKERS IN CONTROL OF THEIR WORK VISAS, THE PROPOSED SEASONAL WORKER SOLIDARITY ACT ALSO WOULD:
Allow guest workers up to 60 days of unemployment stateside to search for a new position
Issue visas quarterly, favoring employers with high labor standards who hire returning workers
Allocate visas to employers who pay the highest wages and treat their workers well
Cap at 100 the number of H-2B visas a single employer can hold
Offer workers and their families a path to citizenship after 18 months of H-2B employment
Give Lawful Permanent Resident status immediately to workers after three years of H-2B work