On Wednesday, with a clipboard in hand, Briana Hurdle wrote down the words “as soon as possible” for a potential start date.
The 30-year-old had circled hours for each day of the week when asked about her availability. Her grandmother, Luz Espada, stood next to her and did the same.
At a job fair that featured more than 40 employers in Charleston’s hospitality industry, the two women moved between the booths, both searching for a job that held the promise of consistent work and steady hours.
In Charleston, a world-famous tourist destination where hospitality is central both to its genteel Southern brand and the health of its regional economy, the need for workers like Hurdle and Espada in restaurants and hotels has reached a fever-pitch.
At most of the booths, employers said they were hiring for anywhere between 10-20 positions that day. Some, like Kiawah Island Golf Resort, displayed a list that showed nearly 60 open positions.
Espada and Hurdle confessed that they had never worked in a hotel or a restaurant. At each booth, they hoped their willingness to learn would be enough.
“We both like to clean. We don’t mind doing it, and we’re good at it,” Hurdle said, as she explained why she thought a housekeeping job might be a good fit for them.
“We don’t know much about restaurants, but we know how to wash dishes,” Espada said, as she reviewed listings on GigPro, an app that offers postings for service-industry jobs by the day.
A desperate need
Ahead of the all-day job fair, Jill Maynard,executive director of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association, said area restaurants and hotels are facing an acute shortage of employees. Typically, this is when those visitor-dependent businesses would be gearing up for the summer season.
Instead, they are still facing challenges in staffing up.
“Some hotels reported if they can’t get rooms cleaned and turned around, they are going to have to start closing reservations off for those rooms,” Maynard said. “If there’s not a chef to cook the meal and somebody to deliver it to the table, what are restaurants supposed to do?”
It’s a new struggle from where South Carolina’s economy was nearly one year ago, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of the state and resulted in a record-high 89,147 initial unemployment claims being made during the first week of April.
Despite the economic rebound taking place now, the lasting effect of the pandemic can be found in the hospitality industry.
Michelle Lannou, a human resources generalist at the Belmond Charleston Place hotel, said the pandemic caused a dip in the volume of applicants they would typically see.
“After the pandemic, a lot of people had to take a second look and really think about their future and had to find other ways of finding income and, unfortunately for some reason, hospitality and food and beverage was not there,” Lannou said.
While Belmond Charleston Place remains busy with visitors, Lannou said they just need more people to work there.
Lannou had this plea for former hospitality workers in the Charleston region: “Come back.”
And for applicants like Hurdle and Espada, who have never worked in the hospitality industry before?
“Come on in,” she said.
A desperate want
Hurdle moved to North Charleston in February to be closer to her grandmother. After more than five years of working in health care in Connecticut, she sought out similar work in home care here.
But she found the hours too inconsistent.
“I can’t just sit around waiting,” Hurdle said. “I need steady hours.”
Earlier on Wednesday, she got the dreaded call, once again, that her home care client did not need her to work that day. They didn’t need her to work the rest of the week, either.
For Hurdle, not working is not an option. With two children, aged 11 and 6, Hurdle has to provide for her kids.
She also had to replace her 2008 Jeep Liberty after it kept leaking oil. Now, she has a 2019 Subaru Crosstrek, and a new car payment that comes each month even if her home care employer calls to tell her they have no work for her.
Espada, 65, wants to find more part-time work. She has a part-time job now, but Espada said her days are still too empty. She said she wants to fill them with meaningful work.
Though they began by searching for housekeeping jobs, Espada encouraged her granddaughter to try for more.
“You’d be good at the front desk,” Espada said, urging her to circle a front office job. “You’re good with people.”
So, Hurdle circled it.
“They seemed open to trying something new, and that’s really what we look for, is people that are interested, who want to work and don’t just need to work but want to work, and find a place where they feel valued,” said Sarah Jones, human resources director for Charleston Marriott.
To respond to the pandemic, Jones said Charleston Marriott decided to raise its hourly rate for housekeepers to $14 an hour. The pandemic, she said, was a chance for companies to reflect on how they can better serve their employees in the hospitality industry.
Other hotel representatives, which declined to be quoted for this story, confirmed they were offering signing bonuses up to $750 to get people back to work.
“It’s hard work,” Jones said of housekeeping and other service industry jobs. “They are sweating for 8 hours a day and they deserve more than $11 and hour. They deserve to be near the top of entry-level positions.”
Wiping sweat away from her forehead, Hurdle looked around and realized she and her “Gigi” had connected with every hotel at the job fair.
It was then, after nearly an hour, Hurdle and Espada found a moment of relief. The two walked toward a patch of shade nearby, where a food truck was serving up tacos to employers and job-seekers.
At the El Jefe food truck, which is also hiring, Hurdle ordered two Sprites. At a table, Espada reviewed the pile of papers and brochures collected at the job fair.
As Hurdle thumbed through her applications, she smiled.
“I feel better now. I feel like I have some kind of chance,” Hurdle said.
What she had heard all day from each of the booths was that hotels needed them.
It was a refreshing change of pace for Hurdle, who for the last two months has found herself clicking through what felt like a rabbit hole of job postings that never ended up where she though they would.
After brief discussion about pay and benefits, signing bonuses and location, they settled on two top choices: Charleston Marriott and Belmond Charleston Place hotel. But they aren’t going to limit themselves, either. They plan to apply to every hotel they connected with on Wednesday.
“All of them,” Espada affirmed.
When the women got back to their car, they kept it in park and began filling out applications.