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The pandemic wreaked havoc on hotel workers

The hotel industry was slammed by the pandemic. The industry has recovered—but its largely racialized, immigrant, women workers haven't

July 1, 2024

5-minute read

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a devastating upheaval in hotel workers’ work lives. Closures and travel restrictions, especially in the first wave of the pandemic, impacted both international and domestic tourism and recreation activities upon which the hotel sector depends.

The hotel industry responded to the volatility of tourism and loss of revenue by offloading these economic pressures onto their already precarious workforce through layoffs, understaffing and on-call scheduling.

The workers who keep hotels going—from reception to room attendants and food and beverage staff—suddenly faced enormous precarity.

We conducted focus groups and interviews with 27 women working in B.C.’s hotel industry, the majority of whom are older, immigrant and racialized women, to understand what they went through—and how changes in the hotel industry are affecting their quality of work and life.

The hospitality and tourism industry is a major driver of B.C.’s economy, with accommodation room revenues alone generating $3.2 billion in 2019.

These workers have long been underpaid for this physically demanding work with limited upward mobility, yet they’ve made a lifelong career in hospitality by building strong workplace communities to counter the racialized and gendered devaluation of their labour.

Approximately 50,000 B.C. hotel workers were laid off, with little clarity on when or if they would be called back to work.

As early as March 2020, the federal and provincial governments introduced programs to support businesses hard-hit by the pandemic, with the aim of keeping employees on the payroll. The hotel industry benefitted from wage and rent subsidies and loans through an array of programs, including the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program, Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), Canada Emergency Business Account, Tourism Relief Fund and the Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program, as well as other support programs by the provincial government.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, B.C.’s accommodation and food services sector received over $1.2 billion in wage subsidies alone.

These wage subsidies were not conditional on a return to work for laid-off employees. So even while receiving these significant financial supports, hotels eventually terminated many employees who thought they were only on temporary layoff. And many who were brought back to work, as restrictions eased, were shifted to on-call scheduling and reduced hours.

This loss of income and employment resulted in moderate to extreme financial hardship for women hotel workers. They struggled to meet their basic needs, experiencing increased food and housing insecurity. The unpredictable work scheduling and consequent unreliable income forced some to take other jobs to supplement their earnings—jobs that complicated the challenges of responding to short-notice, on-call work.

Changes made by hotels were in the name of health and safety, such as reducing cleaning services to reduce worker-customer COVID-19 transmissions. In practice, however, the industry showed little concern for the health and safety of their workforce.

Workers reported a lack of personal protective equipment supplies, inconsistent implementation of public health guidelines, and unaddressed concerns regarding abuse by customers.

Workers were forced to make the impossible choice between their safety and their livelihood.

For workers who lost their job, the loss of extended health benefits added additional financial strain amid a health crisis.

These cost-cutting strategies, initially adopted to cushion hotels from pandemic-related revenue losses, persist even as the industry reports a “remarkable” and “exceptional” recovery.

This has led to ongoing negative effects on workers’ health and livelihood, with little regard for their contributions to hospitality and tourism industries, which represent a significant source of national revenue.

All women hotel workers engaged in this project spoke of employment and financial loss due to pandemic closures and travel restrictions. Some were subsequently terminated, while others returned to an increasingly precarious work environment.

With terminations, understaffing, unpredictable scheduling, and low wages, employment in the sector remains below pre-pandemic levels.

In short, the hotel industry leveraged pandemic emergency measures into permanent cuts to labour costs. Now facing self-induced labour shortages, the industry is on a trajectory to drive even more workers away from this line of work, unless steps are taken to meaningfully improve working conditions and compensation.

Instead, the industry has successfully lobbied the federal government to increase the proportion of low-wage workers that they can hire through the Temporary Foreign Worker program to 30 per cent, undercutting the position of all hotel workers.

Women hotel workers have fought back. In summer 2020, unionized workers in B.C. went on strike to regain their employment.

Women staged a hunger strike on the steps of the B.C. legislature to urge the provincial government to intervene to protect the jobs of 50,000 laid-off hotel workers by adopting temporary recall protections that would give them the legal right to return to work as business recovered.

The province declined to intervene, citing the primacy of securing recall rights through collective bargaining between union employees and employers, even as other North American jurisdictions strengthened and protected hospitality workers’ rights during the pandemic.

In 2021, unionized hotel workers at some hotels launched public actions and went on strike at their workplace over mass terminations and in resistance to employers’ efforts to strip away hard-won wage gains and work protections.

The very low and declining rate of unionization in the hotel industry—3.5 per cent compared to 28.1 per cent across all industries—and the prevalence of precarious employment meant that avenues to fight for a return to work were non-existent for most workers.

As the federal and provincial governments reflect on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that the voices and experiences of women hotel workers—particularly those at the intersection of multiple inequities—are at the centre of policy discussions.

The pandemic highlighted how vulnerable racialized immigrant women workers are to economic downturns because of their jobs in gendered care and service work, precarious conditions of work and unpaid care work at home.

Through their collective actions, hotel workers put a spotlight on an industry that treats racialized women as disposable. They have demonstrated that they are a determined workforce with a strong sense of collective responsibility for their colleagues.

However, the federal and provincial governments and industry leaders need to do more to support their agency in the workplace by: safeguarding workers’ right to recall, proactively enforcing workplace rights and safety standards, introducing limits to on-call scheduling, and increasing the minimum wage to a living wage.

These changes are essential for improving gender and racial equity in the workplace and for a more resilient hospitality and tourism sector.

This research was conducted as part of the CCPA’s Beyond Recovery project, which is tracking how women are faring in the labour market since the pandemic economic shutdowns. For hotel workers, the recovery has yet to begin.

This is an edited excerpt of a joint study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, UNITE HERE Local 40 and Simon Fraser University researchers. Read the full report, A Paradox in COVID-19 Recovery: Increased precarity of women hotel workers in British Columbia, by Alice Mũrage, Stefanie Machado, Alexandra Selinger, Michelle Travis and Julia Smith.

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