Looking At and Listening To Labor Issues

The American Hotel Association recently feted J.W. “Bill” Marriott with its Heritage Award during a gala in Washington, DC. Among those making remarks were family members and long-time employees who remembered working with the affable CEO during the company's infancy. Late in the program, there were tributes from a host of political leaders, including two former Presidents. Indeed, the night's rostrum was emblematic of the growing stature of the lodging industry.

Even though, at heart, we remain a people business reliant on individual human interactions, lodging has become a massive industry that employs 1.4 million Americans, equal to the number who serve in our nation's military. Among the top three employers in 30 states, lodging generates $125 billion in revenues annually. With that comes many challenges, including significant pressure on labor.

Experts believe we will need 300,000 new workers a year to staff our hotels in the next decade, when the baby boom generation slips into retirement and Gen X and Gen Y become the dominant force of new team members.

Because of this, many agree we may be on the cusp of a labor shortage that will affect the way that we do business. In the days following the J.W. Marriott tribute, hoteliers from around the country stormed Capitol Hill to say we have a stake in the national dialog on many issues, including legislation that may further affect the future of labor for our industry.

Some thoughts on the two most critical ones:


Our industry has always created opportunity for new Americans. Many of the 12 million people at the center of our national debate on immigration reform work in lodging. In fact, this fresh influx into the workforce has helped bridge the gap in the short term. A massive deportation of immigrants would certainly have a devastating effect on our business. We all might agree that something needs to be done to secure our borders, but an approach that will allow current residents to earn citizenship is in our best interest. We must dispel the notion that we just look for cheap labor. Competitive pressure in most of our markets has already pushed pay rates above the minimum wage and created a positive wage environment for our employees. In this case, most of us in the industry find ourselves at odds with some in the current administration.

Card check neutrality

A bill has already passed the House that would eliminate the secret ballot for the unionization of hotels. This would create a potential incentive for unions to pressure our team members and eliminates a right at the basis of our society since its founding, the right to a secret ballot. On this issue, we stand with our team members in assuring a fair system of choice.

While Senate passage seems questionable and the President has promised a veto, this issue will not disappear. Some presidential candidates have already expressed support for the measure in the hopes of courting union support.

These are just two examples of a larger set of issues about which we need to speak out as an industry. We can expect challenges in dealing with the changing demographics of our labor force as heirs to our industry bring a new set of values to the employment landscape. This will be compounded by shifts in political policy.

In conclusion, however, each of us must show leadership in assuring a future for our industry as bright as its past. Bravo to the AHLA leadership for bringing focus to these and other issues that affect us all.

Robert Habeeb is president of First Hospitality Group, Inc., a Chicago-based owner, developer and manager of hotels. He can be reached at rhabeeb@fhginc.com or 847-299-9040.

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