A dilemma is unfolding in the hospitality sector around the number of service employees that need to return from the Covid pandemic’s downsizing and the quality of service that business groups and others can expect in the coming months.
First, on March 3 the US Travel Association responded to news that the federal government’s H2-B visa program allowing non-US residents to work in the country had reached its limit of 66,000 until October 1. Because many of those visas go to people who would work in the travel and hospitality sector, USTA Executive Vice President Tori Barnes stated that “we respectfully urge the [Biden] administration to exercise the authority given by Congress to release additional H-2B visas above the cap…to ensure travel businesses are adequately staffed.” Many H2-B visa holders are employed by leisure-oriented properties, but also by hotels’ food-and-beverage departments and restaurants in cities popular for business travel.
Then on March 4, USTA spoke out yet again, this time in response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ February employment report finding that 73 percent of the 2.1 million jobs yet to be regained nationwide are in the travel and hospitality sector. Emerson Barnes said that “the sector’s uneven recovery is due to the lack of available workers, and revenues are down due to a lack of inbound international travelers and the deep reduction in business travel and professional events. Today’s job numbers reflect the great need to accelerate the return of business and international inbound travel and the recovery of these positions.”
The good news is that the federal government is listening to the industry’s calls. On Tuesday, March 8, US Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves will host a roundtable with the US Travel Association on promoting business travel and how to best help the travel and tourism sector recover. The roundtable will also feature industry and labor leaders from Carnival Cruise Line, Caesars Entertainment, the San Diego Tourism Authority, Destination DC, the Association of Flight Attendants, and others.
Noting that the travel and hospitality sector gained back 179,000 jobs in February but still remains 1.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels, Graves said on March 7 that “with this roundtable discussion, the Commerce Department recommits itself to ensuring that our entire travel and tourism sector fully recovers.” And Roger Dow, president and CEO of USTA, added that “working closely with our partners in the federal government will help accelerate the rebound, particularly as businesses in the public and private sector increasingly return to professional travel.”
In addition to raising the cap on H2-B visas, other measures before the Biden administration and Congress that could boost the industry’s recovery include:
• Removing the pre-departure testing requirement for all fully vaccinated inbound international arrivals.
• Providing targeted, temporary tax credits and deductions to stimulate spending on business travel, live entertainment, and in-person events.
• Providing emergency support for Brand USA through the passage of the Restoring Brand USA Act.