Tourists are back, but San Antonio’s tourist attractions lack workers to serve them

Tourists are jumping back on its double-decker bus tours of San Antonio as the pandemic eases, but a new hurdle is holding City Sightseeing back from a full recovery: a lack of drivers and ticket hawkers.

Owner David Strainge said demand is strong enough to run four of his six buses, but he has only three out on the streets for his hop-on, hop-off tours of downtown. He can’t find a driver for a fourth — never mind drivers for the two additional buses Strainge is hoping to deploy this summer.

“Buses sell tickets,” he said. “So if I have fewer buses visible, I get fewer impulse purchases. Most of my customers are not prebooked.”

Strainge is far from alone in needing workers, and some businesses are seeking hundreds more — not just the 10 who would give City Sightseeing a chance to get back to pre-pandemic traffic levels. A year after COVID-19 travel bans and closures shut down tourism, many businesses are finding their hopes for the peak season clouded by the same challenge.

Economists say several factors are contributing to a labor shortage in the tourism sector, where many of the jobs are low-paying and without benefits such as health insurance.

Some workers left the industry for other careers after hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions were devastated by the pandemic. Child care issues, they say, have hindered some parents from taking jobs because their children are attending school from home. Other potential workers have medical issues and are afraid to go back to work.

There is debate over a fourth issue: whether an additional $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits, on top of state unemployment payments, is causing workers to stay home. The argument is popular with Republican politicians, who say the federal benefits are a disincentive for people to work. Gov. Greg Abbott said last week that he would eliminate the extra federal benefits June 24, despite criticism from Democrats and economists who dispute the theory.

On San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg predicts ‘very robust recovery’ for city’s ailing tourism industry this summer

The shortage can’t be blamed on one factor, said Keith Phillips, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. But layoffs and the extra unemployment benefits have given workers time to assess their job opportunities, he said. In the case of low-paying tourism jobs, that could mean workers are looking for a better position outside the industry.

The situation has given workers a chance to improve their circumstances and “increase lifetime earnings,” Phillips said.

On the streets

Strainge said he needs 10 more workers, including seven ticket sellers he’ll station in front of City Sightseeing bus stops at the Tower of the Americas, Market Square and other downtown tourist attractions.

Bus driver jobs start at $16 an hour, but Strainge said tips and commission increase the average hourly wage to $26. Ticket sellers are paid an average of $12 an hour. He’s offering both groups a $300 sign-on bonus if they stay for 90 days. So far, he’s had no takers.

“I have never experienced a labor market like this,” said Strainge, who has run his company for 10 years in Texas.

Across Alamo Plaza from City Sightseeing, Garvin Oneil, general manager of the Menger Hotel San Antonio, has a new job on weekends — valet-parking the cars of tourists who drive from Houston and Dallas to spend the weekend in San Antonio.

He said the hotel usually employs 100 people but is short at least 20, including several valet parkers.

Oneil said advance bookings are strong for the summer, so he is trying to staff up.

“It’s a challenge because we’re having a shortfall of people applying for work,” he said.

At a wage of $9 an hour, the valet parking position is on the lower end of the pay scale, but Oneil said tips can increase the pay by $5 an hour. The hotel will be throwing in some money for tips that will add $1 an hour to the base pay.

At theme parks

The worker shortage also has been on display at SeaWorld San Antonio. The park is hosting its Seven Seas Food Festival through the end of May in an attempt to reboot attendance from the dismal days of 2020 when most visitors stayed away.

But the booth selling Japanese food was shut down one recent weekend. Japanese drummers were moved to the Korean stand, where the chefs were doing double duty — selling both beef bulgogi from the Korean menu and chicken gyoza from the Japanese bill of fare.

SeaWorld San Antonio President Byron Surrett said the park’s culinary operations are short several dozen workers, even after hiring 70 employees as the park ramps up for the summer.

The shortage persists despite SeaWorld’s offer of a $200 hiring bonus.

Surrett said a pay increase ranging from $4 to $17.50 an hour for senior chiefs helped fill positions but not enough to staff the Japanese food booth.

Finding lifeguards for SeaWorld’s sister water park, Aquatica, is an even bigger problem. Surrett has filled only 200 of 400 openings. He said he’s never seen such a lifeguard shortage and has increased pay to $13 an hour for experienced lifeguards, $3 higher than the park paid in pre-pandemic times.

Like some in hospitality management, Surrett blamed the lack of workers in part on the federal unemployment supplement.

“People can make a lot of money staying home,” he said, a situation he hopes will ease when the supplement ends.

But many of the park’s usual contingent of lifeguards are high school and college students working a summer job, so they are not receiving the federal supplement.

Other major San Antonio tourist attractions are short of workers. Six Flags Fiesta Texas said it still needs to fill hundreds of full-time and part-time positions for the summer. Park President Jeffrey Siebert declined to speculate on the reasons but said the park was offering more flexible schedules than in the past to attract workers.

The San Antonio Zoo is short 75 workers for the summer season. The positions start as low as $9 an hour, but the zoo’s Hope Roth doesn’t think raising wages will attract more applicants.

“Others in our industry have wages and bonuses that far exceed what we are offering, and they can’t find workers,” said Roth, the zoo’s vice president for sales, marketing and communications.

Fewer workers will hurt the zoo’s revenue as it attempts to rebuild from the pandemic because it won’t be able to open all its food and gift shops, she said.

Hotels struggle

At North Star Mall, the new luxury hotel Estancia del Norte can’t offer its guests much more than a cheeseburger and a few other food items at the bar. Its signature restaurant, Lazo With Don Strange, will have an extensive menu but hasn’t opened because it’s still trying to hire five cooks and six servers.

The restaurant was supposed to begin operating in early May, a month after the hotel opened.

Line cooks will be paid $17 an hour at the restaurant and servers $12 an hour plus tips, which is up $3 an hour from several months ago, said Tom Green, director of operations for Presidian Hotels & Resorts, which runs the hotel.

Green said he discussed with colleagues in the hotel industry whether the pay should go up even more but was advised against it.

“They have not seen traction,” he said of other hotels that are trying to hire more employees.

Presidian CEO Charles Leddy said the hotel’s restaurant can increase wages only so much.

“We are getting to the place where the cost of labor is so high, we will just lose money if we open,” he said.

It’s a quandary because guests in a luxury hotel expect a full-service restaurant.

Leddy said many hospitality workers left the industry after COVID-19 shutdowns that lasted months. He said it was unclear whether Abbott’s decision to eliminate the unemployment bonus will propel more to seek work.

“We don’t know how many people are sitting on the sidelines,” Leddy said. “It could be we have a huge rush of people where we don’t have positions to fill all the demand. We could also find it doesn’t make a big difference.”

Dallas Fed data showed that the number of hospitality positions in the San Antonio metropolitan area increased by 3,520 between January and March, up 13.1 percent since the end of 2020. But the number of hospitality industry workers — 115,873 — was down 16.7 percent from February 2020, before the pandemic.

One irony of the job situation is that while seemingly every hotel in San Antonio has job openings, about 400 of the 600 workers at the two unionized hotels downtown, the Grand Hyatt and the Hyatt Regency, are still waiting to be called back.

Jake Tucker, a shop steward at the Grand Hyatt whose job is setting up chairs and tables for banquets and other events, said he hoped to be called back in the next month after a furlough of more than a year. He did not consider taking positions at other hotels because they couldn’t match his $15-an-hour pay, which is scheduled to go up to $18 an hour within three years under the union’s contract.

Tucker said he is determined to return to the Grand Hyatt even if it takes months — and regardless of Abbott’s decision to end the federal unemployment bonus. It will cut his weekly unemployment benefits to $200 from $500 a week starting in late June.

Other hotels would not have a labor shortage if they paid better wages, he said, which is one reason Hyatt workers are determined to return to their old jobs.

“This whole blaming the people for not taking low-wage jobs is wrong,” he said.