Young hospitality workers fret, but experts say industry may be in bright spot

Emely Joaquin, who was furloughed last week, misses her job as a phone operator at the St. Regis Bal Harbour, owned by Marriott International.

The 21-year-old Broward College student said she misses the view of the glasshouse, meeting hotel guests from all parts of the world and seeing her coworkers.

Joaquin joined at least 74,000 other hotel workers in Florida who have been furloughed or laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though she is eligible to apply for unemployment assistance, she still worries.

“What worries me is trying to catch up on bills,” she said. “I’ve had to call my phone service and my car note to extend my bills. Money is still going to be due and I have to save as much as I can. I just wonder where the economy is going to land after all of this.”

She also said she feels trapped since malls, beaches and all the things she would normally do for fun have closed. Joaquin, who lives with her parents, fills the extra time by talking to friends on FaceTime.

“We are trying not to go outside and [try to] wash our hands as much as possible,” she said. “It’s a sacrifice that I have to make in order to better help the future that is coming ahead after the crisis is over.”

About 10 million Americans have applied for unemployment help in the last two weeks, beating the previous record many times over. The American Hotel & Lodging Association estimated that 3.9 million jobs nationwide have already been cut or will be eliminated in the coming weeks. They have compared this historic time to Sept. 11 and the Great Recession.

Despite this, some experts say the hospitality industry is particularly well-suited to bounce back quickly when the crisis subsides. This is welcoming news to college-age workers who, with their relatively short work experience, fear being squeezed out.

“Before the crisis, the hotel business was growing,” said FIU professor Emeritus Rocco Angelo, a former associate dean for alumni relations at the Chaplin School Hospitality & Tourism Management. “We had almost full employment in the United States and a lot of jobs that were going empty into scrambling, people were competing with each other for hire for the hospitality industry.”

People without a formal education can be trained relatively easily, he said.

“They are taught how do certain things, and there is no reason why that will not continue,” he said.

Wilmer Mendoza, who recently got furloughed from the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, said he’s trying to use his time wisely. The 25-year-old Nova Southeastern University student joins class meetings using videoconferencing platform Zoom.

“Online classes are in session, so I do not have to worry about that,” Mendoza said. “I feel a certain sense of joy and calm since I don’t have to go to work. The job does bring about stress, and even more so during these times, especially with the potential for contagion. Now, I have more time for myself and my hobbies, so keeping busy is not a concern.”

For the moment, Mendoza said he is using his savings to get by, but that will only last so long. In the meantime, he does occasional work for Rev, a company that hires freelancers to transcribe meetings and interviews.

Wilmer Mendoza attending class via Zoom. (Photo courtesy Wilmer Mendoza )

Michael Rodriguez was furloughed from his work as a group reservations coordinator at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. Though he expects to return to his job, the 24-year-old said he’s concerned it won’t be until June.

Rodriguez, who graduated from Florida International University with a hospitality management degree in December, said he’s just trying to keep himself busy.

“The financial burden, although it does hurt, does not affect me as I am still living at home with minimal expenses,” he said. “I spend time working out and running daily really helps me.”

Angelo said a positive attitude is important.

“This country has a history of coming back after any kind of disaster,” he said. “I think we just need to be positive in our outlook and we know that’s going to happen. People are going to find a way to bring us back where we were before. It may be different, but it will happen. So hang in, hang in.”

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a series describing the transformational effect of coronavirus on the young. For more stories, click here.)

Camila Insuasti is a Colombian-American currently working on her broadcast media and marketing degrees. Camila has dedicated her career experience to original, creative and cultural writing. She covers politics, arts, entertainment and culture.