Women in the Travel Industry Are Bearing the Brunt of the Pandemic’s Economic Hardships

Finding a new job—if she is able to—wouldn’t spell the end of financial woes: Displaced older workers typically see a 35 percent decline in wages, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School.

It’s that sort of decline that leads to a worker’s financial security getting knocked off course, and not just in the near-term. “When they reach retirement age, they probably only have their social security benefit to live off of,” Glynn says. “And now all of those are lower because you’ve had this extended spell of unemployment due to the pandemic. It makes me so scared for what we’re going to see.”

Before COVID-19, retirement was imminent for Sonja Flowers, a 62-year-old server who has worked at Disney’s Grand Floridian for 27 years. But after being laid off in March 2020, she now has to delay it. Thanks to her local chapter of the Unite Here union, which represents a vast array of hospitality and travel industry workers across the country, she has secured the right to return to the role once the restaurant reopens. But while Flowers acknowledges her luck, job security with no prospect of retirement only takes away half of her worries. “I mean, $100 difference in your social security is a lot when you’re on a budget and that’s your income,” says Flowers. “I’m probably going to have work until I’m 70 years old to be able to live comfortably—not in luxury but in comfort. Working another eight years was not in my plan.”

Others are left guessing if their jobs will ever come back. “In our hotel it’s like a rollercoaster,” says Nely Reinante, a housekeeper at a hotel in Hawaii. “Only the highest seniority has the chance of going back to work.” Instead of hiring back more workers as business returns, the hotel is hiring back fewer—and asking them to work overtime. “We can’t understand why they’re offering overtime to the highest seniority working since there’s hundreds of us who are still unemployed,” says Reinante.

A major concern for housekeepers is the looming possibility that hotels’ COVID-19 policies, which eliminate daily room cleanings to limit potential virus exposures, could become permanent or transform into a model in which guests “opt in” to certain housekeeping services.

If so, hotels could operate with fewer housekeepers, which would be “a devastating effect on the economic security and economic viability on large swathes of workers who are predominantly women and people of color,” says D. Taylor, president of the Unite Here union. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 88 percent of hotel housekeepers are women, and more than 67 percent are people of color.

“It’s like they’re showing no care for us, the workers,” Reinante says. “We are working so hard in the hotel to provide exceptional service to every guest, so they will feel the warm aloha spirit and feel that they are well taken care of. We, the housekeepers, are the heart of each hotel.”

But it’s not just the hotel sector looking to cut costs when it comes to staff. While Shandolyn Lewis is currently employed as a contract worker with a Unite Here-affiliated airline catering company at Detroit airport, the airline recently switched its contract to a new non-union catering provider—and “they’re not hiring all the existing workers,” Lewis says.

In fact, according to Lewis, the new catering company has had two job fairs to seek out new staff members, who they are likely hiring at lower hourly rates. “In 15 days, the contract ends and people don’t know if they have a job or not.”