PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Cherissa Morales is one of the thousands of Palm Beach County workers who have gotten a job in a tourism-related business this year.
While employment for the county as a whole basically has remained stagnant compared to 2010, jobs in hospitality and leisure have slowly picked up. Either owners have hung onto more employees after the season, or new jobs have been created - in June there were 3,700 more jobs than June 2010.
"The story here seems to be that the consumer has come back and is leading our economy forward (albeit at a moderate rate)," Patrick Cannan of Palm Beach County Workforce Alliance said in an email. "The local consumer is moving up by spending more (shopping and going out to dinner) and the national consumer is moving us forward by visiting the county as a tourist."
In Florida, tourism employs nearly 1 million people. It provides one out of every eight jobs in Palm Beach County, according to the county's tourism leaders.
"Direct travel-related employment's been showing year-over-year increases consistently for every month since June 2010," said Kathy Torian, spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation.
In Palm Beach County, it's putting some people back to work.
Morales, 35, of Lake Worth was a government social worker in Palm Beach County before she was laid off two years ago. She had been searching for work until March.
"I was really depressed," she said. "I went to college and everything. For what?"
Then Carving Station Buffet General Manager Spiros Lorenjatos hired her as a server for the restaurant's new suburban Lake Worth location. He figures 25 of the 36 people he hired were unemployed.
Morales and co-worker Andre Boudri of Greenacres say they enjoy working at the restaurant and are happy to be employed. Boudri had worked as a turbine mechanic for nine years before his job was relocated to Jacksonville about a year and a half ago.
"I stayed, thinking it was going to be easy to find a job," Boudri said. "But it was very hard."
The 37-year-old father of two hit the Internet and went on interviews, but got nowhere until six months ago. He knew Lorenjatos from a previous job and jumped on the chance to work there. "The pay is decent and the hours are flexible," he said.
Since the recession ended two years ago, the restaurant industry has been one of the leading areas of recovery, said Brian Hoyt, a spokesman with the National Restaurant Association.
"Job growth in the restaurant industry is growing at twice the rate of the overall economy," Hoyt said.
Hospitality and leisure workers are employed at all types of eating and drinking establishments, hotels and campgrounds. Many serve tourists, who have been coming to Palm Beach County in increasing numbers as the economy has recovered.
David Semadeni, who runs the Palm Beach County Hotel and Lodging Association, said occupancy rates have risen 20 straight months compared with the previous year. Hoteliers aren't shedding jobs even though they need room prices to rise to recover from the downturn.
"I think the prognosis is good for the fall and for the coming season," he said.
While a bright spot for Palm Beach County, most hospitality industry jobs pay lower wages, pumping less money into local workers' pockets than construction jobs and other skilled employment that has been lost.
In additional to lower wages, hospitality and accommodations jobs often lack paid time off and access to health insurance, and many have inconsistent work weeks, said Margaret Simms, director of the Urban Institute's Low-Income Working Families project.
"They pay less than jobs that some who have taken them previously made," she said. "They've pretty obviously taken a step down from previous employment, but it's a step up from unemployment."
Still most people are celebrating any job creation in the current economy.
At Grimaldi's Pizzeria, 45 jobs were created in June when it opened at Downtown at the Gardens.
General Manager John Boinis said about 700 people applied for those jobs. Many people he hired had been out of work, and quite a few had worked in fields other than hospitality.
For someone who has spent most of his career in Palm Beach County restaurants, Boinis said it feels good to be part of an industry employing people in this economy.
"I think we are one of the leaders in the country in hospitality," Boinis said. "They, people who do it well, I think, will always have a good market here."
Mark Watson, owner and operator of 16 McDonald's restaurants between Royal Palm Beach and Boca Raton, has added at least 30 workers in the past three months. His restaurants, except for those in malls, began opening the lobby and seating area all night.
"We still like the opportunity to go out and celebrate," he said, "no matter how bad the economy."
Palm Beach County jobs
Percent increase from the same month in 2010
Month Total Leisure/
Jan. -0.4 0.3
Feb. -0.1 0.1
March 0.8 1.4
April 0.7 3.9
May 0.0 4.6
Source: Palm Beach County Workforce Alliance