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Tucson Hotels Put Hiring On Hold: Managers are "Right Sizing"
 as Hotel Workers Struggle for 40-hour Weeks
By Dan Sorenson, The Arizona Daily Star, TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 15, 2009 - At a time when they're usually hiring for the high season, managers at some of Tucson's resorts are hustling just to give 40 hours a week to their existing employees.

"In normal (years), we're scrambling to staff up," said Bill Petrella, general manager of the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, 3800 E. Sunrise Drive, and the new president of the Southern Arizona Lodging & Resort Association. "We haven't needed to do that."

The reason, they say, is severely decreased business as the recession takes a toll on tourism.

"Our industry is affected greatly ... down 30, 40 or 50 percent from last year," said Brian Johnson, general manager of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 N. Resort Drive and recent past president of the association.

"We have had a hiring freeze for four months. We haven't hired an individual," Johnson said.

Ventana Canyon would normally have 500 to 600 workers on payroll -- full-time, part-time and on-call employees, he said. A year ago this time he said that would have worked out to the equivalent of about 475 full-time workers. Now there are about 400 full-time equivalents.

Staff reductions aren't proportional to guest reductions. Johnson said the hotel's managers can cut staffing levels only so far and still meet guests' expectations.

"People come here and expect service. We still have to deliver that whether we have 500 guests or 10 guests," Johnson said. Job sharing The solution some managers have used for getting the current full-time work force enough hours and not overstaffing is a job-sharing system.

Johnson said departments post shifts that they need covered and employees from other departments can sign up for those shifts, assuming they are qualified or can be trained.

The job-sharing system may help Cynthia Fennig, 45, a bellman and two-year employee of Ventana Canyon.

She said it's been so quiet at times that last week she picked up a shift from the building engineering department, painting space numbers in the parking lot. And she's considering taking an overnight shift with the security department.

Things have been slow in another way, too. Fennig said there are not only fewer guests but smaller tips.

"Typically, on average, I would say a guest, if we would take them up to a room with bags, would tip us $5 to $10, sometimes more," Fennig said. "But it's been more like $3."

It gets worse, sometimes.

"Some people are bringing less luggage ... coming in with one suitcase and they aren't needing us at all," said Fennig.

Some people may bring just one bag due to airlines' new fees for luggage, Fennig said, but that doesn't seem to account for all the reduced tips.

"There are people who will go to great lengths not to tip," Fennig said. For instance, she said some will ask a bellman to take bags up to their room but say they've got to stop off at someplace else in the resort before they get to their room -- after the bags have been dropped off. No tip.

Tips aren't a luxury for bellmen, who work for less than minimum wage because it is considered an exempt job -- one where tipping makes up for the difference between hourly wage and the minimum wage.

To make the rent, Fennig said she's also trying to rev up her side job, a residential window- washing business.

Hours, paychecks reduced

La Paloma's Petrella said there were "a few" layoffs in administration and in supervisory positions in December.

But he said other staffers who provide services to guests are "feeling it in their paychecks through less shifts. With it slower, they're getting reduced hours," Petrella said.

So some La Paloma workers, too, are job hopping to get their hours in. Some are painting rooms.

"We have 26 buildings," Johnson said. "We have an opportunity to do a lot of preventive maintenance. But you can't do that forever."

The Westward Look Resort, 245 E. Ina Road, added about 25 people for the peak season back in late December, said General Manager Alan Klein. "That's probably a little bit lighter than we would have had in previous years," Klein said.

He said the normal full-time-equivalent staffing level for Westward Look this time of year would be closer to 280. The current FTE level is 220 to 240, he said.

He said the corporate meetings that, with destination visitors, make up about half of Westward Look's guests, are still coming. But he said they're being booked on shorter notice, "about six months out instead of nine months."

The length of the recession is an unknown, but Ventana's Johnson says one part of the recession will live on after the recovery.

"Maybe we were living in a time of excess," Johnson said of staffing levels before the recession. "What we are looking at right now is what we call 'right sizing.' Did we have too many people doing (job) X? When we come out of this recession, you're not going to bring back the staff levels at what they were."

Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or dsorenson@azstarnet.com.

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To see more of The Arizona Daily Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.azstarnet.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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