MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in New Orleans. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Here's a comparison that shows how important the hotel business is to this city. Manhattan, at the center of a metropolitan area of more than 20 million people, has 70,000 hotel rooms. Before Katrina, New Orleans, at the center of a metropolitan area of fewer than 2 million, had 38,000. By last count, 28,500 are open, and as tourists vacated those rooms after Mardi Gras some of the hotel staff followed them out of town.
Mr. THOMAS BLAIR (Bell Captain, Hotel Ponchatrain): These are my last people that I'm doing right now. After this I'm going to rest up and try to leave out first thing in the morning.
SIEGEL: That's Thomas Blair. The bell captain at the Ponchatrain. An elegant storied hotel of 118 rooms. It's on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District. Thomas Blair is a native, he owned a house in New Orleans East that was completely destroyed. He went to Arlington, Texas, where he's now training to be a school bus driver. His manager, Michael Rosen, urged him to come back to work Mardi Gras. Like just about everyone in the tourist industry here, Mr. Rosen is facing a labor shortage.
Mr. MICHAEL ROSEN (Manager, Hotel Ponchatrain): Prior to Katrina, I had a staff of, and this includes banquet servers, which are a sort of on-call, I had a staff of 85. And I now, as of right now today, have a staff of 22.
Mr. ROSEN: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Rosen says the Ponchatrain could use more staff. He's actually doing more business this year than last year at this time. But, even though wages are up, it's almost impossible to find housing that hotel workers can afford.
Mr. ROSEN: It's very difficult now. Rents are a lot higher than they were before. There are less places available. And a lot of the people just don't have the financial wherewithal to pay the newer rents. And a lot of them owned their homes, so they're still trying to deal with insurance settlements, and, you know, God forbid they didn't have insurance, getting money from the federal government or any other sources so they have some money to repair their homes or find somewhere to live. I still have, I still have several employees staying in the hotel. But staffing is our biggest issue because of housing.
SIEGEL: Here's Thomas Blair's situation. If he moved back fulltime, he could count on $15,000 in salary as bell captain. Less than he would make driving a Texas school bus. But he figures he could make another $15,000 in tips. All tolled, 30,000 a year.
Mr. BLAIR: I would come back immediately...
(Soundbite of someone yelling room service)
Mr. BLAIR: ...the moment I can find something I would come back immediately, because it's hard leaving a 20 year job, you know. I mean, to start over again, start afresh. And then my job yet wants me to return, so as much as they want me to return I'd be more than happy to.
SIEGEL: Now, your son also works at the hotel.
Mr. BLAIR: That's correct.
SIEGEL: So the two of you have to find a place to live here.
Mr. BLAIR: That is correct. And my wife and my other two girls. So it's like five of us total.
SIEGEL: So you've got to find a place that has...
Mr. BLAIR: That would be convenient to hold...
SIEGEL: Three bedrooms.
Mr. BLAIR: Three bedrooms, at least three bedrooms I would like.
SIEGEL: And let's say before Katrina if you'd been looking for such a place, what would you have been willing to spend a month?
Mr. BLAIR: I guess up to $1000 a month.
SIEGEL: If a man needs three bedrooms for his wife, son, two daughters, what's he going to have to pay now? Somewhere within commuting distance to the Garden District of New Orleans?
Professor JOHN WILLIAMS (Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration, University of New Orleans): It's going to be well over $2000.
SIEGEL: That's Professor John Williams. He's the director of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans. Using his numbers, Thomas Blair would have to spend more than $24,000 a year for rent, out of his $30,000 income.
Professor Williams says the big downtown hotels that have reopened report staffing at about two-thirds of pre-Katrina levels. And three of the big hotels haven't reopened at all. Labor is so short, he says, hotel dishwashers are starting at $9 an hour. Professor Williams says the hotels have been creative. Like the Ponchatrain, many of them put their workers in their own hotel rooms.
Professor WILLIAMS: There are still employees in those hotels. So there is no payback for the hotel, but they're doing that for their employees.
SIEGEL: But for a great many employees who were, in fact, displaced and had to evacuate from their homes, if they work for the hotel and the hotel put them up, in many cases the hotel did receive money from FEMA for doing that.
Professor WILLIAMS: That's correct. So for hotels to do that there is a situation where those rooms are not available and they have sacrificed a lot of those rooms for their employees.
SIEGEL: And they could charge a higher rate for a room at a big event like that for tourists, but they can't charge a higher rate to FEMA for that room.
Professor WILLIAMS: That's correct.
SIEGEL: Because they're short of staff, New Orleans hotels cut back on service. At the Ponchatrain manager Michael Rosen says he's reduced service in several ways.
Mr. ROSEN: We're not offering daily housekeeping service. We are not offering room service. My restaurant is, the physical restaurant is not open for dinner. The lounge is open and the bartender is serving dinner. And we're not offering valet parking.
SIEGEL: That's not full service, but it beats the Grand Boutique Hotel down the street, which is completely closed. It's hard to imagine New Orleans hotels and restaurants thriving without a workforce of dishwashers and housekeepers, people who for now are priced out of living in the area. But we found some of Professor Williams' students at the University of New Orleans to be bullish on tourism. Amy Lee got her bachelor's degree in January after finishing her course work online from Houston. She's working at Herbsaint, an upscale New Orleans restaurant where dishwashers are getting $10 an hour.
Ms. AMY LEE (Herbsaint Employee): There's a change in the type of people that are applying for jobs. Like now we have a lot more Mexicans that have come from Texas knowing about this opportunity, that are flocking to work here. And then they ride their bikes to work everyday. They have an apartment uptown that they all share. It's working out somehow.
SIEGEL: That's a case of dormitory style living for single men, not families. Amy's fellow student Patrick Stevens says the hotel companies will have to do more.
Mr. PATRICK STEVENS (Herbsaint Employee): You read mission statements of different companies, how dedicated we are to employees and how well we want to take care of them, and our employees are a reflection of us. Now is the time to show them.
SIEGEL: John Williams says hotel owners are trying to find housing for their workers. He says they've talked about buying housing for them. It's a problem for a city that depends on an industry that depends on low paid labor. Where are people who work hard, raise families, and don't make much money supposed to live?