It was supposed to be a five-hour job fair where would-be housekeepers, cooks, and room service attendants could connect with three local hotels. But when only a handful of people showed up, the employers left just two hours in.

“There was no action,” said Rosalyn Vasquez, an assistant general manager at Aloft Hotels, which is opening its second San Antonio location next month. “We could have stayed later, but we’re in the middle of opening a hotel.”

The problem isn’t new. Vasquez was at a similar jobs fair last month where 40 hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions set up booths at the Alamodome and hoped to fill hundreds of open positions. But only 200 or so job-seekers trickled in over the day, far short of employers’ expectations.

The race to fill hospitality jobs continues after Gov. Greg Abbott ended Texas’ participation in federal unemployment assistance programs last month to help Texans get jobs “rather than paying unemployment benefits to remain off the employment rolls.” It also comes as hotels have raised wages and tourism continues to rise.

Earlier this year, hotels’ need for workers was a desperate scramble. But the situation has improved since March, said Robert Thraikill, general manager of the Hotel Palacio del Rio. “We’ve been successful in recruiting more people, but we still need more bodies,” he said, particularly service and culinary staff for his hotel’s kitchen.

To attract workers, he said he recently raised hourly wages across the board to at least $15 an hour.

Adding pressure to the struggle inside hospitality’s labor market, tourism continues to pour back into the city.

Visit San Antonio, citing data from Smith Travel Research, said hotel occupancy had risen to 69.3% in June, the highest occupancy rate since the pandemic began, though not as high as June 2019, before the pandemic, which stood at 74.2%. Room revenue in June 2021 brought $119 million to the city’s hotels, up $21 million from May but still lagging just behind June 2019 numbers.

Many hospitality businesses have raised wages, offered sign-on perks, and reconsidered scheduling practices.

For years the leisure and hospitality sector had the lowest wages for nonmanagement positions among major industries, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While pay rates vary for different positions, the average hourly wage for hotel desk clerks in Texas was $11.48, or about $23,880 a year.

Jake Tucker, a shop steward for the union at the Grand Hyatt downtown, Unite Here Local 23, disputed the notion that former workers do not want to return to work. “The idea of a labor shortage is disingenuous,” he said. “What we’re really dealing with is a wage and benefits shortage.”

Beyond wages, Tucker said there are other reasons some workers in the industry have yet to return. He said child care is a big one among some of his former co-workers, who he said are reluctant to leave their children in day care centers when no COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children under 12. Case rates have increased in recent weeks due to the fast-spreading delta variant.

After being laid off last year, Tucker is waiting to be called back to his old job at the Grand Hyatt, helping set up conventions, banquets, and meetings. His union contract negotiated last year deferred raises for the year in exchange for an extension to their right-to-recall, he said. While he waits, he's been working part time in construction.

He may have to wait awhile longer. Business travel and events have returned far more slowly than the leisure travel flooding back into the city — even as this month's Texas High School Coaches Association brought in more than 14,000 attendees. It's one of the main reasons the American Hotel and Lodging Association is expecting the hospitality industry to contract by nearly 500,000 jobs by the end of the year.

Before then, some may be leaving the industry entirely. More workers have been quitting jobs at hotels and restaurants than they have in decades. One recent survey shows that one in three former hospitality workers has no plans to return to the industry.

Unemployment in June ticked up to 6% for Bexar and surrounding counties, according to Workforce Solutions Alamo, following a more than half-percent increase from May. The statewide unemployment rate has settled around 6.6%.

Meanwhile, the hospitality and leisure industry in the area grew to 1,700 jobs, marking a 1.4% increase over May.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.