With hotel occupancy at historic lows due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s largest hotel chain announced it has begun suspending workers without pay.

Marriott International, with its chain of hotels that include nearly 1.4 million rooms and 176,000 employees, said Tuesday it will furlough tens of thousands of workers as it begins shutting down hotels. The company owns, manages, or franchises a number of hotel brands here, including the JW Marriott and the Marriott Riverwalk and Rivercenter hotels, and 39 other properties across the city.

“As travel restrictions and social distancing efforts around the world become more widespread, we are experiencing significant drops in demand at properties globally with an uncertain duration,” according to the company statement.

“We are adjusting global operations accordingly, which has meant either reduction in hours or a temporary leave for many of our associates at our properties.”

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the travel industry heightened on March 11 when the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 a pandemic, citing the presence of the virus on every continent except Antarctica. President Donald Trump ordered a halt to most Europeans traveling to the U.S., and the State Department urged citizens to reconsider travel abroad.

It was unclear if any of the Marriott properties in San Antonio were affected by the furloughs and closures. A regional media contact for Marriott did not respond to questions, and the general manager of JW Marriott did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Hotel occupancy rates have plummeted in countries around the world since the outbreak, according to hotel tracking firm STR. In San Antonio, where numerous conventions and meetings have been canceled or postponed, hoteliers are also experiencing major drops in occupancy.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association has estimated nearly half of all hotel jobs have been eliminated, or will be, in the next few weeks. If hotel occupancy continues to drop at the current rate, it would result in the loss of nearly 3.4 million hotel jobs, from general managers to housekeepers.

To cope with mounting losses, lodging industry executives Tuesday asked the Trump administration for $150 billion in aid.

Marriott employs 176,000 people worldwide, about 130,000 of which are in the United States. About 22,000 are represented by labor unions.

At the end of 2019, Marriott reported owning 3,050 properties with 22,000 rooms under construction. It opened 500 new hotels in 2018, according to the company’s annual report.

Marriott began closing some of its managed properties last week, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Employees at those properties won’t be paid while on furlough but they will keep health benefits and be eligible for company-paid, “free” short-term disability benefits. The disability benefits provide income protection if an employee gets sick.

In keeping with how a furlough works, versus a layoff, Marriott plans to bring back furloughed employees when the novel coronavirus is contained and business returns.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott instructed the Texas Workforce Commission to waive the standard waiting week for unemployment benefits.

“We are working quickly to mitigate the impact to our business while also focusing on assisting our associates, our guests and our owners,” said Marriott’s emailed statement.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.