Calling for Backup
Monday, December 22, 2008
After 47 years of service, George Papadapoulos just retired as a banquet captain from Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. He'll be back on the job starting Jan. 16, as a waiter. Martha Gonzalez, a retired accountant, will be bartending.
The holiday season may be dimmed by the economic downturn, but for the days leading to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the Washington region's darkening employment picture will get a shot of brightness from the hospitality industry.
Hotel catering and event planning departments are in their glory, booking their calendars with inauguration events. Human resources staff are scrambling to find people to get all the work done. Legions of maids will be needed to clean more than 25,000 hotel rooms in the District, and dishwashers will be needed to scour plates after breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners and balls. Troops of waiters, room service employees and bartenders will cover the round-the-clock demands of guests.
And with all four days counting as either a holiday or weekend, workers stand to make tidy windfalls: earning $28 to $50 an hour, including overtime; holiday pay for both Monday (Martin Luther King Day), and Tuesday (Inauguration Day) and tips. As of Dec. 12, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25 had helped connect about 3,000 bartenders and waiters with jobs at hotels hosting inauguration events and still had nearly 500 openings.
Dan Amato, general manager of the Grand Hyatt, said his hotel typically has 600 to 650 people on staff and will need at least double that. One event the night before inauguration will need at least 300 waiters.
District-based Hotel and Restaurant Temps is getting calls daily from hotels looking for staff for inauguration events. While a normal request might be for 10 or 12 waiters, last week the company was looking to fill 500 slots for one hotel.
Leroya Kearse, who was working her way through interviews with an office full of applicants earlier this month, explained to those inquiring about jobs that they need a full tuxedo and two forms of identification.
Hotels are struggling to estimate how many more people they will need to hire, because many inauguration parties and events are still being planned. But they expect the need to grow. John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, is looking to connect union employees from other markets to hotels in Washington that need the help. He is currently trying to fill requests from hotels for 455 workers -- 80 percent waiters, the rest bartenders. The limiting factor in getting more employees, ironically, may well be accommodations.
Boardman said he has been speaking with the management of the Greenbriar Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., about providing workers. But because there are no rooms available for them in Washington, they would have to come on a bus, take it back to West Virginia at the end of a shift at 2 a.m. and then return to Washington for more work. The Marriott Wardman is setting up cots in a break room where workers can take "power naps." Others are reaching out to employees to ask whether friends or family members want to work, and telling them that they will have to bunk them if they come from outside the city.
Transportation is also problematic. With buses and trains up and down the East Coast rapidly booking up to bring tourists into Washington, reserving seats for workers when you don't know exactly how many you'll need on what dates is an increasingly tricky proposition.
"The challenge is: How do you get them here and where do you put them once they're here?" said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, an affiliation of 92 hotels in the District.
The financial incentives, however, are alluring, particularly at a time of nervousness about the economy. Hotel employees who normally don't have direct contact with guests will be pulled in to lend a hand. Tandy Kraft, head of human resources for the Renaissance Mayflower hotel, plans to move a fold-out couch into her office and will bring four days' worth of clothes, including flat shoes, black trousers and a white shirt -- the traditional service staff uniform.
"If they need someone to bring six cases of water to this bar and everybody else is busy, I'm an extra set of hands," she said.
Likewise at the seven boutique Kimpton properties in Washington, which include the Hotel Monaco, Hotel George, Hotel Rouge and Helix, said Barry Pollard, regional vice president.
"We are expecting to be 100 percent occupied for four days," he said, "so we'll be having salespeople helping to direct guests during high arrival and departure periods, putting our employees in a variety of positions to help."
In the hospitality world, where banquet servers' normal starting wage is $7.85, the opportunity to make up to $30 an hour, or $500 for working one banquet, is tantalizing. The markup on food and drinks is where hotels make the most money, and gratuities built into the cost of an event will push wage earnings high above normal.
At any given time under normal circumstances, the Washington region is short about 400 servers, said Marriott Wardman Park's general manager, Ed Rudzinski, who will hire at least 500 temporary workers, order beefed-up valet staff from his parking contractor and bring in a private company to oversee security.
The added demand for the inauguration will be a "nice little bump" for hospitality workers, said Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "But unfortunately, it won't be a sustained thing."