Growing Pains


As Hospitality Industry Faces Labor Shortages, Debate Over Immigration Reform Still Relevant


The protests have died down, congressional debate is on hold, and for now, what shape future immigration reform will take in the United States is anybody’s guess.

In many sectors, however, the hotly contested debate over border security and workforce issues is far from forgotten. Among the industries that stand to be most affected, the matter looms as a big question mark over hotel managers whose businesses could face tremendous economical impacts depending on which way the immigration pendulum swings.

According to the numbers, local hotels are experiencing a major turnaround.

In Washington, D.C.—as in many parts of the world—tourism is growing again after steep declines in the years after Sept. 11, 2001.

In today’s strong economy, corporate employees are spending more time on the road and in hotels. Many baby boomers have saved enough to travel during retirement, and young adults allured by globalization are putting more money than ever into overseas flights and leisure accommodations.

According to the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp., the city took fourth place in 2004 as a destination for domestic travelers, when the number of visitors using hotels during their stays increased by roughly 12 percent. More recent data released in September 2006 showed that the District welcomed 400,000 more visitors in 2005 than 2004, and total guest spending surpassed a record billion for the first time—due in part to skyrocketing hotel room rates.

The Hotel Association of Washington D.C. hailed the survey results compiled by the Travel Industry Association as a victory for a city whose economy relies heavily on the tourism industry. The group reported that an estimated class=”import-text”>2007January.Growing Pains.txt.8 billion was spent on lodging in 2005, due in part to rising demands that allowed hotels to bump up room rates from an average nightly cost of 1 in 2004 to 0 in 2005.

But not all the news is good. As more people travel to the area, the pool of workers available to satisfy their tourism needs appears to be diminishing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that another 304,000 hotel workers will be needed nationwide by 2014. A projection from the American Economics Group is more liberal: It expects to see the need to fill an additional 700,000 hospitality jobs by 2012.

Those in the industry say that without a steady stream of applicants, hotels will not be able to meet their clients’ demands. Unlike many for-profit businesses, the success of the lodging industry depends largely on personal customer service that can’t be automated or outsourced.

As Americans have become increasingly unavailable to fill positions, managers have responded to the need for more employees by turning to immigrant workers who are eager to take on assignments.

“Right now, the U.S. is facing long-term labor shortages, especially at the entry level that keep our businesses running,” said J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Marriott International, in a speech at the World Travel and Tourism Summit last year. “In our hotels, we find we can’t get the work done without workers from other nations, and we still have a lot of jobs to fill.”

The growing need for immigrant workers is especially sharp in the D.C. area, where a population of highly educated adolescents facing pressure to excel is contributing to the depleted labor supply. In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive job market, many of the high school and college students who once used their summer breaks to fulfill temporary needs as life guards, janitors and waiters are now trading in those jobs for internships and other career-building opportunities.

“It’s hard to put one finger on why the labor pool is diminishing,” said Shawn McBurney, vice president of governmental affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). “It used to be that college students would do seasonal work, but that’s not true anymore. Now they want internships to advance their careers. At the same time, birth rates are going down and baby boomers are retiring, so there are not as many people available to do the type of work that’s needed.”

And with fewer Americans applying for seasonal positions, many in the hotel industry are looking to Congress. As the number of foreign workers coming into the country illegally has increased drastically in recent years, hotel managers say the Immigration and Nationality Act has put them in a difficult bind. The law, created in 1952, requires companies to request legal documentation when hiring employees, but prevents them from questioning the validity of documents that on the surface appear to be legitimate.

“It puts [hospitality managers] in a really bad spot,” McBurney said. “Our managers tell us they do everything they can to follow the law, but if they have any doubts as to the legitimacy of a document, there’s not much they can do about it. They would like nothing better than to know who they’re hiring. But if you consider a small bed and breakfast or inn with a few employees, even if a very small number of those employees are found to be working illegally—and the managers had no idea—that hotel would be in a really bad position.”

AHLA executives advised members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and advocated for the Senate version of last year’s big immigration bill, which included provisions for a temporary guest worker program that would have allowed employers to recruit immigrant workers when facing a shortage of domestic applicants.

In a letter to Congress in June, a group of AHLA members representing more than two dozen hotel groups including Best Western International and Loews Hotels reiterated their claim that a temporary worker program is needed to help hotels and resorts stay afloat.

“The lodging industry employs 1.8 million people, the vast majority of whom are Americans,” they wrote. “We also provide valuable jobs to thousands of legal immigrants who have contributed greatly to the success of our dynamic industry and our society as well. Temporary guest workers are critical to the operations of many hotels, especially during peak travel seasons.”

However, it was the House version of the bill that ultimately succeeded, focusing exclusively on border control and enforcement, which many advocates say is the only way to keep the country safe from terrorism and stem the rising tide of illegal immigration.

In September, Congress did provide some reprieve for the tourism industry by extending the H-2B visa program, which allows foreigners to work in the United States for less than a year at a time. The Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act, originally set to expire in 2006 but extended to September 2007, caps the number of work visas at 66,000 per year while allowing workers who have previously filled jobs to return without counting toward the national quota.

Although this emergency legislation increases the number of experienced seasonal workers available to hoteliers, many see it as a much-needed Band-Aid as they lobby for a permanent solution.

In the meantime, it’s likely immigrant labor will continue to fill in the gaps—as was visible at the recently opened Hotel Palomar in Dupont Circle, where one of several immigrant workers spent his weekend conducting janitorial duties and other tasks. “I was here all day yesterday, and will be here all day again tomorrow,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “They keep telling me to take a break, but I tell them I don’t mind the work. It is good for me.”

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.