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‘A wake-up call’: Miami hotel workers resist going back to low-wage normal

·13 min read

For 10 years, Norlando Saavedra left his house in Kendall at 4 a.m. to arrive at the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach by 5 a.m. The 58-year-old worked for eight hours making omelets, bacon, waffles and pancakes for hotel guests. Then, he got back into his car and drove to the Hilton Double Tree Hotel in Doral, where he worked from 2 until 10 p.m. making tacos, hamburgers, pizzas and churrascos. Most days, he arrived home at 11 p.m.

Two jobs. Sixteen hour days. Six days a week.

It took both jobs for Saavedra to earn close to the $31.41 per hour that, according to MIT’s calculator, constitutes the full-time living wage needed in Miami-Dade to cover his family’s basic needs. The Fontainebleau paid him $16.83 per hour, or $35,006 per year for 40 hours per week. The Hilton paid him $14 per hour, or $29,120 per year for 40 hours per week. MIT figures the local living wage ranges from $33,441 and $105,804 per year, depending on how many adults in the household are working and how many kids they have.

Most days, Saavedra said, he felt more like a machine than a person, moving mindlessly from his bed, to his car, to the windowless hotel kitchens and back again.

“One of the things I learned during the pandemic is that I’m a human being, I’m a professional,” he said.

For weary, strapped hotel workers like Saavedra, the “back to normal” promise of the COVID-19 vaccine holds little allure. After suffering the shock of abrupt layoffs in March 2020 when hotels closed, many workers say they are now reevaluating what they need from employers.

Meanwhile, South Florida’s critical hospitality industry — like many low-wage sectors — is struggling to find enough workers to keep the beds made and the dinners served. The national leisure and hospitality workforce was 15% smaller in March 2021 than in March 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although Miami’s hotel room rates and occupancy levels have rebounded, the local leisure and hospitality workforce was still 24% smaller in March than the year before.

When the Fontainebleau Hotel laid off cook Noraldo Saavedra in March 2020, he found work elsewhere. He doesn’t plan to return in favor of finding higher wages elsewhere. He poses in the kitchen of MKT Kitchen restaurant in Coral Gables on Friday, June 11, 2021.
When the Fontainebleau Hotel laid off cook Noraldo Saavedra in March 2020, he found work elsewhere. He doesn’t plan to return in favor of finding higher wages elsewhere. He poses in the kitchen of MKT Kitchen restaurant in Coral Gables on Friday, June 11, 2021.

The shortage has already boosted wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly pay for leisure and hospitality employees nationwide increased from $17.24, or $35,859 per year for 40 hours per week, in January 2021 to $18.09, or $37,627 per year for 40 hours per week, in May 2021. But that’s still far shy of a living wage for many — a reality that hit home for workers during the forced inactivity of the pandemic, leaving them time to search for jobs closer to home, with better schedules or benefits, or higher wages.

“The normal has to be transformed,” said Jamila Michener associate professor of government at Cornell University and the co-director of Cornell Center for Health Equity. “The way to transform it is to realize that there were and continue to be deep inequities built into the norm. When we talk about returning to normal, we’re talking about returning to a state of profound inequality and suffering for people who have less.”

As customers come roaring back from pandemic paralysis ready to spend record savings, hotel room rates are climbing and wages should rise too, said Alex Horenstein, an assistant professor of economics at Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami, who studies behavioral economics. In May, the average daily rate for hotel rooms in Miami was $236.07, according to STR, a hospitality data analytics firm. That’s up 34% from pre-pandemic May 2019, when the average daily rate was $176.70.

“We will go back to a new normal with higher salaries and higher prices,” said Horenstein. “These are the natural dynamics of the economy. If they are not going to accommodate the salaries to the new economic reality, they are going to have trouble hiring.”

But not all hotels are confident they can raise prices enough to offer competitive salaries. That’s especially true for small properties with much thinner profit margins than the large, international chains.

Jamila Ross, co-owner of The Copper Door bed and breakfast and Rosie’s pop-up restaurant in Overtown, flinches when she sees job ads for bussers and servers offering $18 an hour and signing bonuses. The hotel has just 22 rooms and the restaurant has 25 seats.

“Being the lower person on the totem pole, it’s a little frightening,” she said. “That’s really tough for us.”

Jamila Ross and Akino West are co-owners of The Copper Door B & B in Overtown.
Jamila Ross and Akino West are co-owners of The Copper Door B & B in Overtown.

Two jobs required

The narrative being pushed by the Associated Industries of Florida, the lobbying group for some of the state’s largest businesses, is that workers are “sitting on the couch collecting unemployment” instead of working. Jobless Floridians will soon lose additional support; Gov. Ron DeSantis has cut off $300 per week in federal COVID-19 relief funds they’ve been receiving on top of the state’s unemployment assistance of $275 per week. The change takes place June 26.

The hotel workers interviewed for this story said they are all back at work or expect to be soon. But not all are back at their old jobs — or even in hotels.

Of the 11 South Florida hotel workers interviewed for this story, three are back in their pre-pandemic hotel jobs or planning to return soon, five have switched to hospitality jobs that pay more or provide housing or quicker promotions, two have found hospitality jobs outside Miami and one has left the industry.

When Saavedra got the call from the Fontainebleau to return to work in March, he was already working two new jobs — mornings at MKT Kitchen in Coral Gables making $14 per hour, and evenings at the Rusty Pelican on Virginia Key making $20 per hour. The Fontainebleau said they would pay him his pre-pandemic wage, but the hotel couldn’t guarantee he would always have his morning shift. Without that fixed schedule, Saavedra can’t maintain his second job. Soon he’ll move to a different Miami Beach hotel in the mornings making $17.50 an hour; the hotel also will pay a portion of his health insurance premium, as did the Fontainebleau.

The insurance plans offered by large hotels are a plus, Saavedra said, but if neither of his jobs offer it, he’ll buy a plan on the public exchange.

“I thought that the Fontainebleau was the only place. I was scared to go look for a higher wage,” he said. “But now we don’t have to keep going with our heads down.”

Beach goers enjoy South Beach on March 2, 2021. One year after Miami Beach shut down spring break, the tourists are back and hotels are at 70% occupancy.
Beach goers enjoy South Beach on March 2, 2021. One year after Miami Beach shut down spring break, the tourists are back and hotels are at 70% occupancy.

Another former Fontainebleau employee, Ernest Taylor turned down the hotel for the same scheduling reason. By the time the Fontainebleau called him back in May offering his pre-pandemic $16.85 per hour wage, Taylor, 40, had already started as a cook at the Hotel Maren in Fort Lauderdale Beach making $16 per hour. Still, he has to work a second, full-time job cooking at the Marlins’ stadium loanDepot Park, making $15 per hour, to cover his basic needs. His wife also works two full-time customer service jobs.

After 18 years working in the hospitality industry, Taylor hopes for a promotion somewhere that will allow him to have one job.

“I’m most concerned about how many jobs I actually have to have,” he said. “The work is not the issue for me, it’s how many jobs I have to have to support what I need to support.”

For Herman Gonzalez, 59, an 18-year employee at the Diplomat Hotel, returning to work will be bittersweet.

As head captain of the steakhouse and a sommelier, Gonzalez figures with tips he earns $25 per hour, or $52,000 per year for 40 hours per week.

After he was laid off in March 2020, he’s stayed away from work, fearing that his high blood pressure will put him a greater risk if he catches COVID-19 in cramped kitchen environments from others who aren’t vaccinated, even though he is. The break has allowed him to exercise regularly and go to sleep before midnight for the first time in decades.

But when he gets the call to return to work at the hotel, which just reopened June 1, Gonzalez said he’ll go.

“It’s like choosing between life and death for a paycheck,” he said. “I’m still afraid of getting infected... I think I have to choose the paycheck, I’m not going to have a choice really.”

A wake-up call

Hotels have long struggled to retain low-wage workers and have traditionally relied on J-1 visa recipients to work seasonally. In Miami, hospitality workers are further strained by a dismal public transportation infrastructure, expensive tourism-zone parking fees, and expensive childcare options that make holding onto a hotel job difficult.

Still, employers are finding the worker shortage jarring.

Managers and representatives at some of the area’s largest hotels — Fontainebleau, Loews, Intercontinental — interviewed recently say they are taking a hard look at wages; some are offering bonuses to employees who refer others who get hired. But mostly they are hoping workers return to their same jobs, which offer health benefits — a rarity in hospitality — and a foot in the door in a cut-throat industry.

Glenn Sampert, general manager at the InterContinental in downtown Miami, has been plugging holes himself, jumping in to help the hotel’s short-staffed operations team. So far the hotel has not raised wages and is focusing recruitment efforts on promoting its benefits package, which includes a 401k, and opportunities to move up into management roles, he said.

“The opportunity for advancement is there. It’s not just about the starting wage,” said Sampert. “It’s more about the opportunity, the quality of the benefits.”

A hotel guest enjoys having the pool practically to herself at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. The hotel reopened on June 1, 2020, after having to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A hotel guest enjoys having the pool practically to herself at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. The hotel reopened on June 1, 2020, after having to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But not all hotels are feeling the same pinch. The Diplomat Hotel, Broward County’s largest, has been slowly welcoming back its pre-pandemic workforce since reopening this month. General manager Laurens Zieren said most workers want to return. The hotel has studied its workers’ ZIP codes and is considering a shuttle service that could alleviate the high cost of getting to work, he said.

The pandemic has made The Betsy Hotel owner Jonathan Plutzik more acutely aware of his staff’s sacrifices. He said he has raised wages, but other systemic barriers, like transportation and childcare, will have to be tackled city-wide to really make Miami Beach hotel jobs viable, long-term careers for people starting out today.

“It’s not a stroke of the pen resolution,” he said. “Some of it is money, some of it is transportation, some of it is school, some of it is public health.”

Ross, the co-owner of The Copper Door and Rosie’s, longs for the day she is able to pay workers a living wage with benefits. Throughout the pandemic, she and her co-owner and husband Akino West have worked housekeeping and cooking shifts alongside their eight-person staff to keep the business afloat.

The pandemic forced workers to stop and think about what they need for the first time, Ross said, and served as a “wake up call” for employers.

“We are used to working days on end until we literally can’t anymore,” she said. “People are recognizing that having quality time with family, going on vacation, these are things that I value....We need to take better care of our workers.”

As a first step, she would like to see more grant funding for small businesses and help from large insurance companies to provide her employees with medical and dental coverage.

She tries to hire workers that can walk to the hotel, and her goal is to make sure that each worker is promoted so that when they move on, they’re able to land managerial roles with higher wages. After busy weekends, Ross offers bonuses to workers, and she hopes that securing a liquor license for Rosie’s will bring in more income and allow her to boost wages.

Ross’ transparency is part of what drew Jason Uzhca, 21, to Rosie’s. He turned down a call back in May to his cook job at the Fontainebleau, which paid him nearly $15 per hour, in favor of a job at Rosie’s making $12.50 per hour. Uzhca has some financial help from his parents and scholarship money to finish his nutrition degree at Johnson & Wales.

He said the pandemic shifted his priorities.

“One of the things I realized is it doesn’t matter how big of a name or small of a business it is, it’s the people you work for,” he said. “[At Rosie’s] they’re always trying to be better. That type of energy is really motivating.”

New normal

For now, employers will have to compete for workers by offering higher salaries or richer perks — meaning they will have to reduce their profit margins, boost prices for customers, or shrink their staffs.

And while that may cause a strain for businesses, employers are better equipped to handle that financial stress with access to bank loans than low wage workers, argues Michener, the Cornell professor.

“The alternative is that working people are taking the losses,” she said. “For us to look at the people who have the least to constantly bear the burden of the economy because we want employers to be comfortable, it’s not really right. We want people in a position where people choose to do what’s good for them and their family instead of doing anything to make a bare-subsistence living.”

Miami’s hotel industry recovery has been quicker than anyone anticipated, said Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. He expects rising room rates will plateau eventually, and there will continue to be ups and downs. But hotel workers having more clout is a good thing, he said.

“This gives us the opportunity to reset our thinking,” he said. “It should be a win for the hotel operators and a win for the hotel employees who are the backbone of the tourism economy.”

South Beach visitors walk down Ocean Drive near the Clevelander in Miami Beach during the start of Memorial Day Weekend on Friday, May 28, 2021.
South Beach visitors walk down Ocean Drive near the Clevelander in Miami Beach during the start of Memorial Day Weekend on Friday, May 28, 2021.

There’s progress. Taylor, the cook working at Hotel Maren and Marlin’s stadium, said the hotel has raised his wage from $14.50 to $16 since he started in September in an effort to keep him.

It’s still not a living wage, but it’s a start.

“I think the best thing that’s going to come out of this is employers learn to take care of the people who take care of them,” he said. “I really think that is going to happen. Some places it will take longer than others, but I still see that happening.”

It may be too late for some. Even if she is called back to her housekeeping job, Maribel Saldana, 43, isn’t sure she’ll return to the resort where she worked for nine years and made $14.72 per hour pre-pandemic.

The time away from the hotel has allowed her to be with her big family, including 10 siblings, one adult son and one grandchild. “I spend more time with my grandbaby,” she said. “I have a big family. There’s always a birthday to celebrate.” She has attended doctor’s appointments she put off for years because she said it was difficult to get approval to miss work.

Next week, she and her sister are planning to open a food truck business making fried seafood. If the business takes off, she’ll still have time for what matters to her most — her family.