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Why do Durango hotels reject hiring bonuses as a way to stymie labor shortage?

Some hoteliers view perks as ‘quick fixes’ to employment woes
Tori Ossola, left, general manager at Strater Hotel, works with employee Drew Findley on Thursday at the front desk of the hotel in downtown Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Many industries have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that jolt has been especially felt in the hospitality industry.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association shared an Oxford economic analysis that claims the pandemic wiped out the last 10 years of growth across the United States’ hotel industry.

Colorado lost 13,192 hotel and leisure jobs in 2020 and was projected to lose another 7,864 by the end of this year, according to the Oxford study published in February.

The DoubleTree Hotel on Camino del Rio in Durango shows on its sign on Thursday that it is offering hiring bonuses. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hiring bonuses have been used in some market areas to lure prospective employees into the hospitality and leisure industry, but Durango hotels, for the most part, aren’t pursuing that option.

Tori Ossola, general manager at Strater Hotel, said hiring bonuses were an option management considered, but ultimately the hotel opted not to use them.

“We did go through a process of discussing that with our management team,” Ossola said. “We opted to not do that because we believe that we would like to create a sustainable employee here at the Strater. We feel that some of these businesses that are hiring are (using) quick-fix hiring bonuses.”

Ossola said she believes that when staffing levels eventually return to normal pre-pandemic levels, those successfully hired with the one-time incentive of sign-on bonuses will be the first to leave. At the Strater Hotel, management wants to hire employees who are in it for the long haul, she said.

“I believe this to be true but I don’t know for certain,” Ossola said. “So the Strater’s approach has been a little bit different in that we would rather hire at a little bit higher rate. We’re not paying anybody minimum wage, we’ve decided to bring that minimum wage up to a higher wage and then do our 90-day reviews with good performances and an additional incentive at that point.”

The Strater Hotel has lost about 20 employees, not including about 20 employees who were cut when the hotel lost its lease with the Henry Strater Theatre.

“That essentially eliminated an entire department from the Strater Hotel,” Ossola said. “... We lost our entire banquet division as a result of losing that theater.”

Pre-pandemic, the hotel employed 130 to 150 people during the summer, its busiest season annually.

Losing the banquet staff alone would have reduced its staff to 110 to 130 people, but because workers have become harder to hire, it is currently operating with a staff of about 95.

Ossola said staff members at the Strater Hotel have also been affected by the Durango housing crisis wherein rents are skyrocketing.

“That is also a key factor here,” Ossola said. “I think there are so many things going on as to why employees are not coming back to our workforce in the positions that we’ve always had. I think housing is certainly one thing to consider. I think our college students are coming back and we’ve certainly seen many more applications as a result of that, which is great news, so we’re excited about that.”

Despite the employment downturn of about 27% from pre-pandemic levels at the Strater Hotel, Ossola remains confident and optimistic about the future.

“The Strater is 130 years old,” she said. “This is our second pandemic and we’re not going to shut down because of that.”

Guests check into Strater Hotel on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Adventure Inn co-owner and manager Jordan Foster shared similar sentiments about hiring bonuses, except to say hiring bonuses were never really considered.

Foster said the Adventure Inn has a small, loyal crew, and although the hotel dealt with staffing problems earlier in the pandemic, “we’re not trying to bribe people to come in to work.”

“We know that unemployment (benefits) is running out and now people are going to start getting a little more desperate,” Foster said. “But that was never our thing. If people need an incentive to work, apart from, you know, a good pay? Hiring bonuses – what’s to stop them from just leaving after they get hired? I’m sure there’s some stipulation with that, but that was never on our radar as an idea.”

The DoubleTree Hotel in Durango has a sign outside advertising hiring bonuses at a rate of $400. Efforts to reach General Manager Zach Burns were unsuccessful.

However, DoubleTree employee Iresa Hazard offered her perspective:

“I don’t think the hiring bonuses are working, in my personal opinion,” Hazard said. “And I’m pretty sure we’re not the only place. It seems like it’s hard to get new employees in general right now.”

The Herald contacted multiple other hotels and motels in the Durango area, none of which were offering hiring bonuses to new employees. Establishments contacted included the Comfort Inn & Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites, the Best Western Inn & Suites and the Caboose Motel.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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