Southwest Florida’s hospitality industry continues to scramble for workers

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Lacking enough employees is better than lacking
enough customers, said Steve Adams, director of
food and beverage at the Oxbow Bar & Grill, right,
and other Luminary Hotel dining options.

With tourist season about to begin, waits for getting into hotel rooms and getting seated at restaurants could be getting longer. In Southwest Florida, as across the country, hotel and restaurant general managers are having trouble finding workers.

The onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic caused many in the hospitality industry to lay off employees. “However, individuals working those jobs, they don’t want that to happen again,” says Janeth Castrejon, director of communications for CareerSource Southwest Florida, which assists people with job placement.

The five-county area of Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades and Hendry reported adding 4,500 more leisure and hospitality jobs in August, year over year. It wasn’t enough.

“They (workers) are rethinking their career paths,” Castrejon says. “They are thinking about maybe going back to school. I think the Delta variant has impacted their decision to go back to the industry. They’re thinking about their welfare and their family. Couple that with what we’re calling the generational gap.”

The beginning of the pandemic forced a lot of baby boomers into early retirement, Castrejon said. “Whatever jobs they had during the pandemic were unfilled when we went into recovery mode,” she says. “Then you’ve got Generation X and then the millennials; they have been exposed to the flexibility of gig work, [including] DoorDash. They have the flexibility and can make some more money. That another factor: the change of generational mindset.”

Workers for hospitality-related jobs have not returned along with the tourists, said Steve Adams, director of food and beverage for Luminary Hotel in downtown Fort Myers. “It’s been interesting for us,” he says. “We opened during the pandemic. That was our challenge to begin with. When we opened, we were right on the cusp with COVID. We did a big job fair. It was pretty full; we managed to hire pretty well. I would say, in my estimation, it was sort of uphill from there. We have 10, 12, 15, 21 jobs posted right now.”

Dishwashers, cooks, housekeeping, assistant restaurant general manager—the Luminary needs people to fill those positions.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” says Adams, who has to staff a coffee shop, lobby bar, diner, fine-dining restaurant, pool bar, rooftop bar and the Oxbow, a standalone, riverfront restaurant with 35-40 employees by itself.

On the other hand, lacking enough employees is a better problem to have than lacking enough customers, Adams said. “We just have to be patient,” he says. “Yes, it’s a challenge, but we have consumers, we have guests. That’s not our problem. Our problem isn’t not being able to fill up the oxbow. People are going out. It could be worse: It could be we had workers but nobody out there spending any money. Twenty twenty-two looks pretty good for us. From that standpoint, we are thankful there are people going out. We’re seeing them come back.”

If the Luminary, just 1 year old, is having trouble finding workers, the situation is worse for some other, older properties, Adams said.“Company-wide in Mainsail, we’re struggling all over the place,” Adams says. “It’s not just the Luminary in Fort Myers. We are the new shiny object and, quite frankly, Mainsail is a great company to work for. We’ve got 401K. We have insurance. We have a lot to offer compared to some of the other guys. We’re not paying the highest, and we’re not paying the lowest, but we’re fair with our pay. It’s getting now to the point where, when the season gets here, what do we do? We’ll have to start getting creative.”

Most hotels that were short-staffed in the fall could expect to remain that way when tourism season peaks, said Lois Croft, the Southwest Florida director for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

“We started a job portal to help our members find employees,” Croft says. “It’s just the way the world is now. It’s not only us, but a lot of businesses. We’re going to do the best we can with the resources we have. It’s going to be a challenge for everyone if we don’t have enough staff. Businesses have adapted and changed things.”

Some of those adaptations have involved using technology to overcome staffing shortages. Making it easier for restaurant patrons to order online is one example, Croft said. “A lot of people are shifting,” she says. “It’s going to be difficult for employers.”

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