Women workers bear pandemic burden as hotel industry prospers

January 24, 2024

VANCOUVER - While BC’s accommodations and food services sector received over a billion dollars in government COVID-19 subsidies, women workers—predominantly racialized and immigrants—either lost their employment or had hours and income significantly reduced, a new report shows.

And fallout from the pandemic has led to ongoing negative effects on workers’ health and livelihoods, says the report, A Paradox in COVID-19 Recovery, by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, UNITE HERE Local 40 and Simon Fraser University researchers.

Responding to the significant COVID-19 revenue and employment losses in the accommodation and food services sector, the federal and provincial governments implemented targeted benefit programs for businesses from March 2020. The hotel industry received wage and rent subsidies and loans through an array of government programs.

Despite this, workers interviewed for the report felt their contributions to the hospitality and tourism industries were undervalued even though these sectors significantly benefit national revenue.

“Tourism is a major driver of the BC economy and despite the pandemic, it has remained a top contributor,” says lead author Alice Mũrage.

“Yet, the industry’s revenue recovery has not spurred a robust employment recovery and employment has increased at a much slower rate with levels still below pre-pandemic.”

In 2022, accommodation room revenues rebounded in BC for the first time since the pandemic with revenues surpassing 2019 levels. But while the hotel industry is recovering and hotel room rates have increased dramatically, workers have not seen this upturn. Despite industry claims of a labour shortage, the reality is that a significant number of workers laid off during the pandemic have not been rehired.

“Cost-cutting strategies blur the line between actual labour shortages and employer-induced shortages. During the pandemic, hotels adopted business models requiring fewer workers, in pursuit of “labour efficiencies” and a lower break-even occupancy rate,” says Michelle Travis, UNITE HERE Local 40 research director.

In early 2023 the British Columbia Hotel Association noted, “Many of the hotels are operating at 70 to 80 per cent capacity because they don’t have people to clean their rooms.”

Yet BC women hotel workers reported under- and unemployment.

“All women hotel workers engaged in this project spoke of employment and financial loss due to pandemic closures and travel restrictions,” Mũrage says.

Some women interviewed for the report gave examples of how they made ends meet during the pandemic.

“I haven’t bought lettuce for the longest time because one lettuce was five dollars,” one participant told report authors.

Workers with older children shared how, for the first time, they asked their children—most of whom were in university or had just finished high school—to contribute towards household expenses.

“I’m a single mom and since my son turned 18, I include him to pay rent. So that was shocking for me because he’s just finishing high school at the time. And that was motivation to stop studying and get a job, which is what happened,” another interviewed worker said.

Interviewed workers were predominantly unionized immigrant and racialized women whose jobs are gendered and low paying. Some reported they were reluctant to complain about increased workload and report injuries for fear of retaliation by their employer, says Mũrage.

Some went on strike to win back their jobs and prevailed, while others remain on strike. More than 3500 unionized hotel workers in BC successfully negotiated for extended recall rights.

Many employers did not ensure safe workplaces for returning workers, but even so those who continued to work during the pandemic’s first year were grateful for secured income. However, they felt they had to choose between their safety and livelihood and did not feel prepared or supported to do their work, the report shows.

“Employers downloaded pandemic risks onto their workers, which translated into increased on-call work and understaffing, with workers forced to make the impossible choice between their safety and their livelihoods,” said Travis.

The report underscores a stark paradox: hotels are thriving yet the backbone of the industry— workers—are still grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic and struggling to support their families.

To safeguard workers’ rights, the report recommends:

Securing recall rights: Governments should safeguard workers’ right to recall in case of layoff during health or other emergencies.

Addressing income insecurity: Employers should provide workers full-time employment with regular work schedules and abandon cost-minimizing strategies that contribute to income insecurity.

Enabling affordability: The provincial government should increase the minimum wage to a living wage so that salaries better align with the actual cost of living.

Safeguarding workers’ rights: The industry should establish safe and manageable workloads in collaboration with workers and unions.

Safeguarding workers’ health and well-being: Employers should provide all workers—full- and part-time—with extended health benefits including physiotherapy and mental health support.

For more information and to arrange interviews please contact Jean Kavanagh at 604-802-5729, [email protected]