Why hospitality workers aren’t returning to the industry

hospitality workers

Many hospitality workers who were furloughed or laid off during the pandemic are unlikely to return to the industry.

Hospitality leaders are struggling to find employees and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better unless something changes. 

Findings from a recent study by researchers at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality suggest that one of the major factors keeping skilled and experienced workers away from hospitality is that they’re angry. The study found that anger over pandemic layoffs is keeping workers from returning to their jobs. Many who were furloughed or laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic are “angry and unlikely to return to the industry.”

As we all know, during the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, travel and dining out ground to a screeching halt and hospitality revenue in lodging and food and beverage plummeted, leading to mass layoffs. Nearly eight million hospitality workers lost jobs in the US alone, making the sector the hardest hit by workforce reduction in the country. 

Three years later, hospitality wants them back but they aren’t interested in returning. The US jobs market has reportedly surpassed pre-pandemic levels but hospitality is lagging. In July, more than 1.3 million jobs remained unfilled. 

“I don’t think any industry was prepared, but the hospitality industry really wasn’t prepared,” said study author Juan Madera, professor at Hilton College, according to a research brief. “Their solution to cutting costs and saving the business was to let people go and then try to rehire them when it was over.” 

To figure out why people don’t want to come back, Madera and his fellow researchers conducted a study published in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management. They collected data from more than 300 online surveys and over 100 responses to a scenario-based experimental study. Participants included current, former, and aspiring hospitality professionals, as well as hospitality students. The study focused on the emotions of fear and anger.

“Your job, your livelihood is taken away, so a natural response is fear for your future,” Madera said. “But we found anger was a bigger driver in explaining why these workers aren’t coming back. They were angry over how the industry responded to the pandemic.” 

Study co-author Iuliana Popa said, “I think by and large, people who were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic probably moved on to different industries altogether. Something more stable and less dependent on those in-person interactions where their skills were transferable, like business or real estate.”

She went on to say, “Workers in the hospitality industry already had it hard, whether it’s low wages or having to work weekends, overnights and holidays. It’s a very demanding job, so to go through all of that and then be laid off was kind of the last straw.” 

This research basically confirms what we already knew: that something needs to change in the sector or the crisis, which was already starting before the pandemic, will worsen.

A 2021 survey of more than 30,000 job seekers found that 60% of job seekers would not consider working in a restaurant, bar, hotel or other hospitality job. Of those, 70% said nothing would convince them to work in hospitality. And, most concerning, 38% of former hospitality workers said they were not even considering a hospitality job, and only 26% said higher pay would incentivize them to change their minds.

And a 2020 survey found that travel and hospitality employees were the least likely out of all industries to feel valued at work. This included not only those who were furloughed or laid off, but also those who continued to work full time. Less than half (42%) of travel and hospitality employees who were still working full time said they felt valued by their company. And travel and hospitality employees who were still working full time were more likely than people in any other industry to say their employee experience got worse during the pandemic rather than better.

Madera and Popa’s research team came up with some pretty obvious recommendations for improving the situation going forward, including offering higher compensation and better benefits and doing a better job of protecting workers’ health. Popa also said the most important priority should be rebuilding trust with their employees. “It’s important that organizations understand this anger among workers and build better communication with them,” she said. “If there’s another crisis in the industry, they’ll want to know there’s a plan in place and that they’ll be protected, financially, emotionally and physically.”


For how to combat this trend of disgruntled employees, read what Michael Tompkins of Hutchinson Consulting, former CEO of Miraval and Hilton Head,  has to say about how to attract and retain employees. 

Michael Tompkins on how spas can better attract and retain employees

Spa Executive is published by Book4Time, the leader in guest management, revenue and mobile solutions for the most exclusive spas, hotels, and resorts around the globe. Learn more at book4time.com.

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