Glovas Little has been working in Marathon and living in Homestead for 20 years.
“I travel the long distance for a good check, a steady check,” Little said.
The Holiday Inn Express housekeeper and her co-workers get on a bus at 5:40 a.m. in Homestead in order to arrive at work in Marathon at 7:30 a.m. They often work 12-hour shifts, six days a week and the supervisor hasn’t had a day off in 14 days.
And they are worth their weight in gold.
The shortage of lodging housekeepers is so bad in Marathon that last week, some community leaders and members of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West got together to try to come up with solutions. Maintenance workers, front desk clerks and servers are also in short supply.
“I don’t even know how many positions I have to fill; it’s a fluid thing. I lost another housekeeper this weekend,” said Karen Thurman, the general manager of the Hyatt Place and Holiday Inn Express in Marathon. When pressed about the vacancies, she said there are at least 10 positions to fill … always. Right now, the company has employee housing for 14 but there are twice that number on the waiting list … always.
There are allegations that some managers are trying to “poach” employees from other resorts using signing bonuses or the promise of a dollar more per hour.
“We can’t start cannibalizing ourselves,” Thurman said, referring to the Middle Keys resorts.
Thurman said the situation is especially bad in the Middle Keys. She said the Upper Keys has drive-down help, and Key West still has the charm to attract a quartet of college students who don’t mind sharing tiny quarters.
“But the homes we lost on Big Pine Key … well, that was our bedroom community, if you will,” she said.
Lodging Association President Jodi Weinhofer said it’s not just the hospitality industry that’s hurting for employees.
“Restaurants require a lot of people. Home Depot, Kmart require a lot of people. Any business that supports the tourism industry — retail or watersports, for example — those people have to live somewhere,” Weinhofer said.
“I watch movies or TV shows on my phone. I LOVE ‘Divorce Court.’”
— Belulah Bradley, housekeeper, on how she keeps herself entertained on the long bus ride to work in Marathon.
The solutions have been discussed before — more affordable housing and more workforce housing. But with the dependence on workers from the mainland, there’s been a new spotlight cast on transportation. The bus from Homestead only makes two stops in Marathon — one near Sadowski Causeway and one near Kmart. That means employees of resorts in lower Marathon — Tranquility Bay, Hyatt Place and the Marriott Courtyard — have to either walk or pay for another hop. The soon-to-open Hampton Inn is closer, but the issue is the same.
“As an outsider coming in, this situation is outrageous,” said Cindy Williams, the new general manager for Hampton. “We’re in a rental bidding war for housing, and now a salary bidding war. Places like Home Depot and Subway are paying $15 an hour.”
While new developments in Marathon are required to provide a certain amount of workforce housing, older developments or those that have been redeveloped do not. Williams said the Hampton has two units, but corporate bosses are considering buying homes to house workers or even subsidizing part of the transportation cost.
“We discussed ways to shuttle these people faster, with certain stops at certain hotels. We’re trying to come up with every solution,” Williams said.
The gorilla in the room, of course, is the level of service. For now, employees like Little and Bradley and even managers are doing more with less. Marriott General Manager Alex Reitter is doing everything he can to keep “the core” workers in place.
“We work with schedules, and management takes up the slack to fill in the holes,” Reitter said. “I would say the hardest to fill for our smaller resort property are the food and beverage positions — specifically the coffee bar, tiki bar and events. The snowbirds that worked for us, they are getting ready to pack up and head home. And we don’t see a slowdown in season coming.”