As she struggles through months of unemployment during the pandemic, Omni Hotel housekeeper Pauline Oglesby said she needs an assurance that she’ll be able to return to her job as soon as her former employer starts hiring again.
So she applauds a proposed new “worker’s recall” law pitched by the mayor’s office and backed by the local hotel worker’s union
Oglesby shared her story Tuesday afternoon during a virtual press conference hosted by UNITE HERE Local 217, a local chapter of the hotel workers union that covers Connecticut.
The subject of the presser was a newly proposed ordinance submitted by Mayor Justin Elicker and Corporation Counsel Patricia King to the Board of Alders during the local legislature’s most recent bimonthly meeting.
That so-called “worker’s recall” law would require local hotels that have 50 or more rooms to offer to rehire employees who have been laid off during the pandemic as soon as their old jobs or similar jobs are available again.
Employers would have to prioritize rehiring laid-off employees based on their seniority—that is, how long they had worked at that hotel prior to being laid off.
“I’m alone, and it’s rough. It’s really, really rough,” Oglesby said Tuesday.
She said she has worked turning down sheets at the Temple Street hotel for the past 13 years, and is eager to return to work — in no small part because she has struggled to pay her bills through just unemployment and Social Security.
“It’s tough. Mentally, emotionally, and physically,” she said. “I’m just holding on.”
Barbara Pearse Mayberry, a 22-year veteran Omni housekeeper who also joined in on Tuesday’s press call, agreed. She turns 60 years old later this month. She said being separated from work for so long has turned her life upside down.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “You get depressed and anxious if you have to stay home a lot. Once I’ll be able to get back to work, I can get my life back on.”
Mayberry said she’s worried that she’ll have great difficulty finding another job if her former employer doesn’t take her back on. “I just don’t know how I will begin to get another job at my age and the years of service you put in in places,” she said. “When you get to a certain age, you don’t want to just be going somewhere” looking for a new job.
Elicker (pictured) said during the press conference that his office drafted and proposed the law after hearing from local hotelworkers who have been laid off since the novel coronavirus hit last spring. “Once the hotel industry in New Haven gets back up on its feet, it’s important that the workers have the first opportunity to get their jobs back,” he said.
He made a similar point in a Nov. 2 letter he submitted to the alders as part of the proposed ordinance submission.
“As hotel businesses reopen to the public and return to regular service as the pandemic wanes,” the mayor wrote, “the promise of regular positions for previously laid off employees is important to the economic stability of many New Haven residents. This ordinance will benefit the general welfare of the City of New Haven by accelerating our transition back to a more stable labor market and mitigating the damages to our city’s economy.”
Ginny Kozlowksi, who heads the state’s hotel industry trade association, told the Independent that the hire-back requirements included in the proposed law are already general practice in an industry that tends to have long-term employees and has been ravaged by the pandemic. She said she and hotel owners across the state are most concerned about receiving an industry-wide bailout from the federal government to make up for the prolonged drop — with no end in sight — of business and recreational travel that is so important for hotels’ livelihood. (See more below for Kozlowksi’s perspective on the law.)
The proposed law now advances to a public committee hearing before returning to the full board for a final vote.
Board of Alders President and West River Alder Tyisha Walker-Myers said during Tuesday’s press conference that the board will “treat this ordinance like any other piece of legislation that comes to us”—giving it a public hearing during which alders will listen to the testimony of local hotelworkers and any other members of the public interested in weighing in on the matter.
New Haven is not the only city to consider passing such a hotel worker recall law.
Oakland’s City Council passed a similar law this summer.
And just last Thursday, the city council in Providence, R.I. passed a Hotel Comeback Ordinance, which was also championed by laid off hospitality workers and a local chapter of the UNITE HERE union. UNITE HERE is also the parent union for Yale’s blue-collar and pink-collar workers, and has a strong political presence on New Haven’s Board of Alders.
Local 26 member Angelique Meas (pictured), a front desk worker at the Omni in Providence, called in to Tuesday’s presser to talk about the impact that her city’s recently passed recall law has already had on her and her colleagues’ mental health.
“My family right now is going through some tough times, with not being able to pay our bills and not being able to do the things that we were able to do when we were working,” she said. She said had started seeing a therapist twice a week after getting laid off, and that she’s now on her husband’s insurance, causing her family’s monthly premium payments to nearly triple.
“By us doing this whole recall action and all binding together and winning this, we feel confident,” she said. “We feel strong. We feel able to come back to work when it’s safe.
Recall Law: First Dibs For Laid-Off Workers
The proposed New Haven law, which can be read in full here, would essentially give recently laid off local hotel employees mandatory first dibs at returning to their old jobs—or to similar jobs—once their former place of work starts to rehire.
The ordinance states that a hotel employer “shall offer its Laid-Off Employees in writing, by registered mail to their last known physical address, and by email and text message to the extent the Employer possesses such information, all job positions which become available after this Chapter’s effective date for which the Laid-Off Employees are qualified.”
The law covers any employee who worked for a local hotel for six months or longer in the 12 months preceding Jan. 31, and who was laid off from a local hotel after Jan. 31 “due to a government order, lack of business, a reduction in force or other, economic, non-disciplinary reasons.”
It goes on to define a laid-off employee as qualified for a job if that worker held “the same or similar position” at that place of work prior to being let go, or if that worker “is or can be qualified for the position with the same training that would be provided to a new employee hired into that position.”
Where more than one employee is qualified for a newly opened position, the employer shall offer the job to the laid-off employee who had worked at that same hotel the longest. That is: seniority prevails.
If an employer declines to recall a laid-off former employee due to lack of qualifications and hires someone else instead, the law states, that employer must provide a written notice to the laid-off employee within 30 days, explaining its decision.
In a section of the proposed law entitled “Enforcement,” the ordinance specifics that one or more employees may file a civil lawsuit in state Superior Court if they believe their former employer violated the terms of the ordinance.
“If the court finds by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the employer has violated this chapter, the court may enjoin the employer from engaging in such violation, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate, which may include, but is not limited to, reinstatement or hiring of employees, with or without back pay including fringe benefits, or any other equitable relief as the court deems appropriate.”
Union Report: “Stability & Security To Hotelworkers”
Also on Tuesday, UNITE HERE Local 217 published a seven-page report documenting the unique hardships of hotel workers during the pandemic and pushing for the passage of New Haven’s worker recall ordinance.
“Worker recall is based on the simple and fair principle that workers who sacrificed their livelihoods to protect public health should get their jobs back when work resumes,” reads the report, which can be read in full here. “Workers would return to their jobs in order of seniority, as long as they were laid off or furloughed through no fault of their own. By providing stability and security to hotelworkers, the ordinance would help ensure that our city emerges from this crisis more equal, not less.”
The report states that, during the peak of the coronavirus-induced economic shutdown this spring and summer, 39.3 percent of leisure and hospitaly workers nationwide were left unemployed. That economic hurt has continued even into the fall, as the industry still has 34 percent fewer workers than it did a year ago.
In New Haven as across the country, the report states, hotel work is “disproportionately non-white and female.”
The report’s author, Julia Salseda (pictured), a locally-based researcher for UNITE HERE, underscored that point during Tuesday’s afternoon’s presser.
“This unemployment crisis among hotel workers has the potential to not only create economic inequality, but also deepen racial inequality.”
Last year, Black people and Latinos collectively made up 29.9 percent of the total national workforce, but 49 percent of the traveler accommodation sector, according to the report. It also states that women were 47 percent of the American workforce, but 58.7 percent of the traveler accommodation sector.
“As of September, 2020, 23,500 New Haven residents are unemployed,” the report continues, “up from 11,200 at the same time last year. Many of these workers are employed in the hospitality industry, which suffered tremendous losses as non-essential travel was limited. So many Connecticut hospitality workers were laid-off this spring that Local 217 launched an unemployment application hotline. Now, as New Haven returns to Phase 2, hospitality workers are faced with continued instability.”
The report goes on to provide two “worker testimonies” from longtime employees of the Omni downtown.
Maria Palma, who has worked in housekeeping at the Omni for 13 years, described her job as one of the best available in New Haven, in part because of the healthcare she receives through her work.
“I don’t want to work anywhere else,” she’s quoted as saying in the report. “A worker recall ordinance would provide peace of mind and stability. We need our employer to worry about us. We need them to see that we are part of the community and that we contribute to society.”
Brenda McPherson, a banquet server at the Omni who has worked at the hotel for 25 years, agreed.
“If the hotel were to fire me, I would not be able to find another job with a similar salary and health insurance benefits,” she’s quoted as saying in the report. “I would have to work two jobs in order to make what I made at the Omni. I’m too old to work two jobs. That would be really hard on me. I’ve worked at the hotel for the last twenty-five years and I think we deserve to have our jobs back once the pandemic is over.”
Hotel Industry: “We’re Not Recovering”
Connecticut Lodging Association Executive Director Kozlowski, who heads the state’s hotel trade association, said that the recall mandate described in the city’s proposed ordinance is already “pretty much the general practice at the moment” in the Connecticut hospitality industry during the pandemic.
Kozlowski said that many hotel workers have been with their respective employers for years, sometimes decades. “They become like family,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to bring back your long-standing employees who have been with you through thick and thin?”
She said that the fate of the local and statewide hotel industry lies less in local recall laws like the one proposed for New Haven, and more on whether or not the federal government will step bail out the sector much in the way that March’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act did for the airlines.
“We’re not recovering,” she said. “We’re stepping backwards.”
Kozlowski said that many local hotels were closed for months this spring and summer. The Study and the Graduate hotels on Chapel Street were closed from April through July. The Omni on Temple Street was closed through September.
She said local hotels are at roughly 40 percent of their occupancy capacities right now, and that that number is as high as it is because of previously existing contracts with the state. Nonprofits that would normally be hosting annual fundraiser galas at this time of year have moved those events online. There are no trade association meetings or university conferences filling up downtown hotel rooms and meeting spaces. The lack of hotel stays and catering has hurt businesses up and down “the supply chain,” she said, including for caterers who provide meals for banquets hosted at hotels.
And, as the state suffers a new surge in Covid-19 cases, it has rolled back to Phase 2.1 of the governor’s reopening rules. Those mean tighter caps on indoor gatherings.
“They’re hurting in many different ways,” Kozlowski said about hotels across the state.
She noted that the Stamford Sheraton and a Hilton in Hartford have both closed permanently during the pandemic. And the Smith Travel Rsearch Firm estimates that the hotel industry will likely not see a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels of revenue until 2024.
She said one of the big questions hanging over the industry right now in terms of employment is: “How do we accelerate recovery so that we can bring more employees back?”