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It could take years for Baltimore’s hotel industry to recover from the pandemic. Longtime workers are looking for a livelihood.

Jazz Baxter, who worked as a banquet server stands outside the Hilton Hotel Baltimore, who chose to lay off him and other workers as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the hotel industry Tue., Jan. 26, 2021. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Jazz Baxter, who worked as a banquet server stands outside the Hilton Hotel Baltimore, who chose to lay off him and other workers as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the hotel industry Tue., Jan. 26, 2021. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Working at the Hilton Baltimore was “not just a job” for Jazz Baxter, a banquet server and bartender who spent 10 years at the Inner Harbor hotel.

“I was able to actually see my life improve,” Baxter said.

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The union-represented position offered benefits and enough money to finally build up some retirement savings.

Like scores of other hotel workers in the region, Baxter lost his job last year as the coronavirus pandemic hit the industry. Now, he is starting over in his 40s with a completely different occupation as an insulator.

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Ashley Baxter stands beside spouse Jazz Baxter, who worked as a banquet server, outside the Hilton Hotel Baltimore. The hotel laid off Jazz Baxter and other workers as the coronavirus pandemic decimated the hotel industry. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Ashley Baxter stands beside spouse Jazz Baxter, who worked as a banquet server, outside the Hilton Hotel Baltimore. The hotel laid off Jazz Baxter and other workers as the coronavirus pandemic decimated the hotel industry. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“I didn’t leave because I wanted to,” said Baxter, who lives in West Baltimore with his wife and 5-year-old son. “I left because I was forced to.”

Hotel closures and mass layoffs have left workers reeling in an industry that supported families and generated significant tax revenues for local governments. While observers say pent-up demand for travel and the arrival of vaccines will help the rebound, it could be several years before travel fully returns.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association projects that travel will begin bouncing back this year, but “full recovery” isn’t expected until 2024.

As travel halted and large gatherings became unsafe, a torrent of event cancellations hit the industry early last year.

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The Baltimore Convention Center, which is attached to the city-owned Hilton where Baxter worked, lost an estimated $92 million in business from March to December, according to Visit Baltimore, the city’s nonprofit marketing group.



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The center — once the host of trade shows, galas and concerts — was designated as a field hospital and testing center for COVID-19. It’s now slated to be a mass vaccination site.

“Suffice it to say that the pandemic has really decimated the travel and tourism industry on a global and national” scale, said Visit Baltimore President and CEO Al Hutchinson.

More than 230 meetings, conventions and other events booked by Visit Baltimore were canceled last year, which translates into 303,045 hotel room nights, Hutchinson said. Already this year, 66 meetings have officially been called off.

The convention industry may not return to 2019 levels until 2024 or 2025, he said.

Still, Hutchinson said he expects leisure travel to pick up sooner, by late this summer or early fall. As an affordable “drive-to destination,” the city can attract families visiting from places like Philadelphia and New York, and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, he said.

“Baltimore’s going to come back in the travel and tourism space,” he said.

In the meantime, those who built steady careers have already faced prolonged unemployment.

Nationwide, the leisure and hospitality fields have the highest jobless rates among industries, according to federal labor statistics. Unemployment in the accommodation sector stood at 19% in December. That’s compared to 5.1% the previous December.

“It’s been very rough,” said Joshi Chauhan, 53, who was laid off from his job as a restaurant server at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

The anxiety often leaves him sleepless: “Between March and now, I’ve been lucky if I sleep four hours.”

Chauhan, of Owings Mills, is frustrated with how the government handled the COVID crisis, saying it was too slow to get the virus under control. Still, he is trying to keep the faith that “we will get through this pandemic.”

While out of hotel work, Chauhan has tried to stay busy. He worked as a canvasser for his union UNITE HERE’s massive door-to-door effort for the elections, campaigning in Philadelphia for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as in Georgia for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who were elected to the U.S. Senate.

Chauhan, who worked for Marriott hotels for more than 20 years, said he enjoyed the interaction with others that a hospitality career brings.

“I always loved the people,” said Chauhan, who is originally from India.

Overall, Maryland lost 34,000 jobs in the accommodation and food services between February — the last full month before shutdowns began — and November 2020, said Daraius Irani, chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, who added that the success of widespread vaccination will be a key factor in recovery.

A union analysis found that Black workers, particularly women, were hit hardest by job losses at Baltimore hotels. At the Hilton, for instance, 69% of those laid off were Black, according to UNITE HERE Local 7.

Baxter lost work last February as people started canceling events and international travel slowed from countries where the pandemic was already widespread. He received unemployment benefits and started looking for jobs outside the industry. For a while, he worked a 2 a.m. shift handling packages at FedEx, but “that wasn’t a future.”

Joshi Chauhan, a longtime Marriott worker, is still affected as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the hotel industry Wed., Jan. 27, 2021. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Joshi Chauhan, a longtime Marriott worker, is still affected as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the hotel industry Wed., Jan. 27, 2021. Many are struggling with long-term unemployment after building steady careers in the sector. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

He participated in an apprenticeship readiness program called Raising the Bar through local labor organizations and is now an insulator apprentice with Insulators Local Union No. 24, working at construction sites.

Baxter makes $17 an hour, which is nearly 30% less than his hourly wage at the Hilton. The work is much different than what he did at the hotel, where he enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life and taking in the sights of diverse events, like salsa festivals that drew dancers from around the world. But he doesn’t know when the hospitality industry will go back to normal.

“I can’t really wait around,” Baxter said.

The Hilton suspended operations at the hotel in late March of 2020 and it’s unclear when it will reopen. A Hilton spokesperson said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that the hotel “has made the decision to continue to temporarily suspend hotel operations” due to factors including new government lockdowns and “the forecast of continued and even worsening pandemic conditions throughout the winter.”

The Maryland Department of Labor is trying to connect laid-off hospitality workers with jobs in other fields, recently announcing a series of virtual recruitment events in industries such as health care and logistics.

Without the convention center driving business, large downtown hotels will struggle, said Amy Rohrer, who heads the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association.

Statewide, room revenue was down 50% year over year for 2020, Rohrer said.

“It’s dire,” she said.

The industry has pressed for state relief such as the $50 million Maryland has set aside for hotels to cover payroll expenses, rent, and utilities. Rohrer said her group will oppose new regulations, saying hotels can’t afford any new rules “resulting in increased operational expense at this time.”

In Baltimore, the industry strongly opposed a new law that requires hospitality businesses to rehire laid-off workers once they reopen. Former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young vetoed the measure, but the City Council overrode his decision.

UNITE HERE Local 7 led the campaign for the new law, saying it would provide workers with much-needed certainty.

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“Once there is business, there are a lot of people that want to come back,” said Local 7 President Roxie Herbekian.

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With many struggling to meet basic needs during the pandemic, the union has held a series of food distributions for laid-off hospitality workers, both members and others. So far, it’s given $150,000 worth of groceries and gift cards to families through donations to its relief fund.

At one event this past fall, car after car pulled up to the folding tables set up in a parking lot near M & T Bank Stadium. Brown paper bags were lined up on the ground for distribution, filled with packages of crackers, four-pound bags of Domino sugar, trail mix and other pantry items. The union also gave out fresh vegetables and gift cards to Safeway.

Demand was so high that registration had to be shut down. About 750 people signed up for 600 spots.

Herbekian said the layoffs have disrupted retirement plans for many older hospitality workers who devoted years to the industry.

One of them is Roxanna Cornish, 61, who was a housekeeper at the Hilton Baltimore and lost her job last spring.

“That’s where I was planning on retiring from, was the Hilton,” the Baltimore resident said.

Instead, she has had to dip into her 401(k) just to pay her bills.

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