‘Flexibility' Is Job One for Hospitality Employers

‘Flexibility' Is Job One for Hospitality Employers
Mark Abernathy, owner and executive chef of Little Rock’s Loca Luna and Red Door restaurants (Jason Burt)

The Arkansas hospitality industry, like industries across the United States, has worked hard to recruit and retain workers in the tightest labor market in decades.

To do that, restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses have raised wages, increased benefits, offered referral bonuses and, perhaps more than anything, made “flexibility” their new byword.

And while industry employment numbers haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, the situation has improved, hospitality professionals in the state told Arkansas Business.

The leisure and hospitality sector in Arkansas employed 124,400 in February 2020, before the pandemic. In March 2022, the latest figures available, that number stood at 121,900, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Embassy Suites by Hilton Jonesboro Red Wolf Convention Center is, “for the most part,” finding the workers it needs, said General Manager Kraig Pomrenke. But he added that experienced cooks and some housekeeping positions remain hard to fill.

Raising wages was one strategy to attract workers, he said. Showing employees appreciation for good work — high guest service scores, for example — is another, such as providing meals, quarterly parties with gift giveaways and, in particular, flexible hours. “That’s one nice thing about the hospitality industry,” Pomrenke said. “We can fit people’s schedules really well.”

He gave the example of housekeepers dropping their children at school, coming in to work, leaving about 2:30 p.m. to pick up their kids and take them home and then returning to finish their work. “We’re fine with that.”

Mark Abernathy, owner of Little Rock restaurants Red Door and Loca Luna, agreed that the worker shortage had abated somewhat. “We can normally fill a slot now in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “It used to be, I could run an ad and get five or six, seven quality job candidates within a few days. For a while there, I wouldn’t get any.”

Now, he said, he gets two or three good-quality job candidates. Abernathy attributes part of the worker shortage to new employers like Amazon and Costco coming to the area.

Abernathy has also raised employee wages, saying his employee payroll “across the board” — hourly and management — is now 20% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Bisceglia is managing partner of Kemuri, a restaurant in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood that is preparing to open a second location in west Little Rock. It, too, has raised wages. “Everyone’s had to do that,” he said.

“We’ve been real fortunate to get through to this point just having enough employees,” he said. But “it continues to be a struggle.”

Kemuri has also started offering health, dental and vision insurance to full-time workers, Bisceglia said, though not many have taken advantage of the program.

The restaurant’s best strategy for attracting new workers has been through employee referrals, Bisceglia said. A referring employee gets $100 once a new worker gets through the training process, and if the new employee stays 60 days, the referring employee gets another $100.

The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau has also instituted an employee referral program, said Gina Gemberling, president and CEO. Employees get a $50 gift card when they refer a worker who is then hired and another $50 gift card if that new worker stays 90 days. “Our employees are our best advocates,” she said.

Staffing remains a challenge at some Arkansas State Parks locations and for certain positions, such as wait staff at restaurants, said Jeff LeMaster, communications chief for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism.

“Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson approved a base pay increase for all full-time state positions in grades GS01 through GS05,” LeMaster said. “This increase has made these positions, which include many of our hospitality roles, much more competitive while also reducing attrition.”

In February, the department raised compensation for part-time wait staff at state park restaurants to minimum wage plus tips. In addition, LeMaster said, “We have utilized flexibility in compensation options within state rules for certain extra help positions.”

Pomrenke sees a permanent change in the workforce generally because of the pandemic. “These are major shifts in the workforce that I think people need to recognize,” he said. “It’s not a phase. It’s not a fad. It’s not something that’s going to go away. This is where we’re at.”