CHARLESTON, S.C. — As the weather warms up, people are getting out: out of town, that is.
“It's like somebody turned the faucet on and there was no trickle. It just came on full force,” said Michelle Woodhull, president of Charming Inns and Circa 1886 Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, which includes the 19th century Wentworth Mansion.
However, surviving a 21st century pandemic may have been its biggest challenge yet.
“We had to lay off, unfortunately, about 85% of our workforce, one of the most difficult things I've had to do in my career and certainly unexpected,” Woodhull said.
The unexpected didn’t stop there.
When travel picked up earlier this year, Woodhull ran into two problems: a shortage of employees, about a quarter of their workforce, and a lack of job applicants.
“We personally, as well as other businesses in the area, have had to limit our reservations in the restaurant, for example, or at the hotels, because we simply don't have the staff to accommodate the demand,” she said.
Tourism is a huge part of the economy in Charleston and the demand for employees is so strong that the hospitality industry is offering $500 sign-on bonuses, like for hotel housekeeping staff, just to get people hired.
It’s not just a problem in Charleston, but also across the country, as the busy summer travel season approaches. According to the U.S. Labor Department, hotels in the U.S. are off by at least 600,000 employees compared to last year, before the pandemic.
“I say it's a crisis,” said Daniel Blumenstock, a board member of Explore Charleston and the director of hotels for Lowcountry Hotels, which is also feeling the labor shortage in the hospitality industry. “I could hire probably 85 people right now. It's probably one-third of our workforce is missing at the moment - and I would hire them today if they walked in the door and applied for a position.”
However, after a recent hospitality industry job fair, he only found six hires. What’s behind it all? There are a few theories.
“In many, many states across our nation, the government assistance is providing income for people not to work,” Blumenstock said. “And our goal is, is to put people to work.”
Woodhull, who is also president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association, also saw other reasons for employees not returning.
“We lost some people due to the pandemic, to other industries, because they didn't know when their job was going to come back,” she said.
Yet, now those jobs are back, along with travelers’ expectations, they hope to meet.
“Everybody needs a break every once-in-a-while,” Woodhull said, “and needs to get away.”