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July 26, 2021

CT hospitality jobs struggling to recover from the coronavirus

Yehyun Kim | CT Mirror Corey Gile, a cook with The Whaler's Inn, makes a drink wearing a mask on Thursday, Aug. 13.

Connecticut has known for months the coronavirus hit its hospitality industry harder than those in most other states.

Now it’s learned things are worse than many thought.

According to revised projections from the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Connecticut will have regained — by year’s end — slightly less than 72% of the 26,225 direct hotel industry jobs it lost during the pandemic.

Those 7,400 unfilled jobs is significantly worse than the 5,900-position-gap the AHLA forecast for Connecticut back in May.

“The pandemic has been devastating to the hospitality industry workforce, wiping out 10 years of hotel job growth,” the association wrote, adding that the hotels and other lodgings are expected to end 2021 down 500,000 jobs compared with 2019 employment levels.

Direct hotel jobs, such as housekeeper and front desk attendants, do not include workers from restaurants, retail operations, tourist attractions and other small businesses supported by the lodging industry.

Only four states — Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York — along with the District of Columbia, are projected to have regained a smaller percentage of direct hotel jobs than Connecticut will have by year’s end.

“We are still facing incredible challenges,” said Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of the Connecticut Hotel and Lodging Association.

Perhaps the biggest, she said, is regaining the full contingent of business travelers who comprised 60% of the customer base at Connecticut hotels, motels and bed and breakfast operations before the pandemic.

Vacation and other leisure-related travel has recovered well this summer, though there still some work to do, Kozlowski said. But business-related travel has lagged considerably. 

For example, are many companies going to permanently limit their conventions, retreats and planning meetings?

Will salespeople who normally visit their customers four or five times a year now do it just once — and stay in touch the rest of the time via online conferencing?

“That’s where we’re not sure,” Kozlowski said.

Another unknown pressing the industry is the coronavirus itself.

Kozlowski praised Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration for Connecticut’s strong effort to promote vaccinations. As of Monday, 71% of residents age 12 and older were fully vaccinated.

And she noted the governor and legislature have been supportive in other ways.

Between the new, two-year state budget and federal coronavirus relief funding, Connecticut officials have dedicated more than $60 million in new resources that will assist tourism promotion and the hospitality sector.

David Lehman, Lamont’s economic development commissioner, said a portion of those resources also will support a new grant program to assist hospitality and related businesses. That program likely will be unveiled early in 2022, he said.

And none of that assistance includes another $150 million the state deposited directly into the unemployment trust fund. The state has borrowed more than $700 million to keep the fund afloat, and the debt is expected to approach or top $1 billion by year’s end. Businesses normally are assessed to cover such debts, so that $150 million payment effectively is direct tax relief to all businesses.

Eric Gjede, a specialist in labor and labor and tax issues for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said Wednesday any additional deposits the state could make into the unemployment trust would be a boon to all businesses. Gjede added that the business travel situation may not return to pre-pandemic levels this year, which means Connecticut’s hospitality sector may remain vulnerable.

“It’s very clear things aren’t back to normal, by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

The co-chairs of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, have asked Lehman’s office for more data on the beleaguered hospitality sector.

Osten said she fears some of the jobs, because they are low-paying, will remain unfilled because Connecticut’s battle with the coronavirus is not over.

“Some people have gone on to other fields and are not interested in coming back to this direct contact job,” Osten said.

The state’s COVID-19 infection test positivity rate crept upward in recent weeks, topping 2.5% on Tuesday.

The Delta variant of the virus , which was originally identified in India, is now likely dominant in the state, according to Nate Grubaugh, epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. 

Kozlowski said the industry has not ruled out an appeal later this year or early in 2022 to Lamont and the legislature for more assistance, adding that she believes many state officials have been closely monitoring what is happening in this sector of Connecticut’s economy.

“There is an acute awareness that we’re in serious trouble,” she added.

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