Workers protest as hotel closures drag on and on

A small group of hotel union workers in red-and-black T-shirts reading “Come Back Stronger” gathered outside a closed-for-construction Copley Square Hotel Thursday, asking that the hotel’s owners reopen the storied property and reinstate their jobs.

The hotel has stood at Huntington Avenue and Exeter Street since 1891, making it Boston’s second-oldest hotel in continuous operation. But it has been closed for months, for pandemic restrictions and now renovations. Its main phone line was disconnected Thursday.

Hawkins Way Capital, a Beverly Hills-based real estate company, bought the hotel in 2019. At the time, company officials said in a press release that they planned to “update and reconfigure the guest rooms and significantly improve the hotel’s common and retail areas.”

“The property is still under construction, we are working with the city to get that cleared,” Joshua Bird, general counsel for Hawkins Way Capital, said Thursday. “We are trying to open as soon as possible, as soon as we can manage.”

Bird said he did not know when employees could expect to hear about their jobs.

“We’re trying to stay as open as we can, but we really don’t have more information,” he said.

The Copley protest was part of a day of actions from hotel, casino, and food service workers across the United States and Canada organized by UNITE HERE union locals. Workers, some of whom had to work through the pandemic and others who saw their jobs vanish when lockdowns began, asked their employers to reinstate lost jobs and amenities such as room service, which have been cut in some hotels despite an increase in business over the summer and fall.

Seven jobs that will never be the same after the pandemic

With more than 10 million jobs open in the United States, why are 7.7 million people out of work?

A big reason, economists say, is that many people reassessed their career goals during the pandemic and aren’t eager to return to the low-wage jobs they held before the crisis. That phenomenon ― along with factors such as ongoing child care and health concerns ― has caused a labor shortage that is keeping companies from meeting surging demand, raising consumer frustrations, and slowing the pace of economic growth.

As a result of this labor unrest, many types of jobs are morphing or ― in some cases ― being phased out altogether.

“Over the last year and a half, there has been some fundamental change, where people are looking for something else out of the jobs … better hours, better working conditions,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In August alone, more than 4 million people voluntarily quit their jobs, the highest number recorded by the Labor Department since it started tracking the figure more than 20 years ago.

To stem the rising tide of worker discontent, companies are offering record-high wages, sweetened benefits packages, and hefty sign-on bonuses in an effort to retain and woo workers.

Paul Osterman, who teaches human resources and management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said the labor shortage situation should, in theory, be good for people looking for work, since it gives them an upper hand. That’s why it is troubling that since the start of the pandemic, more than 4.3 million people have stopped looking for work. But while “people are being much more choosy” now, he said not everyone can remain out of the workforce forever.

“It’s a race between people’s fear of going back to work and a need to pay the bills,” he said.

Here’s a look at seven types of jobs that have markedly declined in popularity over the last year and a half, why they may never be the same again, and what that might mean for consumers.

Restaurant workers

What’s going on? Walk by most restaurants, and there’s likely a “Now Hiring” sign on the door or in a window. Hosts, servers, cooks, and bartenders are all in high demand.

There was an exodus of workers from the industry during the pandemic following COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions that led to closures and layoffs. As the economy reopened, restaurants that survived have struggled to ramp up to full capacity, resulting in reduced hours and seating, limited menus, and longer waits for service. In many restaurants, servers are doing double duty as bartenders or as hosts. And it’s not uncommon for owners to work in the kitchen during the busiest hours.

A National Restaurant Association survey conducted in September found that nearly 80 percent of restaurants said they are understaffed.

The upshot: Restaurants are adapting to dealing with a leaner workforce. In some cases, that means expanding kitchen areas so that there is more room for to-go and delivery orders and less space for customers to sit. For others, it means investing in technology, such as QR codes to replace the role of servers, or in the case of Sweetgreen, buying robots from MIT that will make the chain’s signature salads.

Baristas

What’s going on? With so many office employees working from home ― and likely never going back in on a full-time basis ― coffee shops near their lonely buildings have cut back on hours, removed seating areas, converted to takeout-only, or closed.

Meanwhile, employees at Pavement Coffeehouse and Darwin’s Ltd. in the Boston area have moved to unionize for better working conditions amid a nation reckoning within the industry that’s even reached industry giant Starbucks.

The upshot: The days of a barista knowing your name may be waning. The two largest coffee chains operating in Massachusetts are replacing some human interaction with tech, perhaps making the process of getting a cup of coffee more efficient, but no doubt less personable. Dunkin’ just opened a “Dunkin’ Digital” store on Beacon Street in Boston where customers order through a touchscreen kiosk or an app. And Starbucks is planning to open a pick-up and delivery-only store in Cambridge.

Supermarket/retail cashiers

What’s going on? Despite inflation, consumers are increasingly spending money at stores, and major retailers ― including Costco, Walmart, and Target ― are reacting by raising wages so they have enough employees to meet the demand. The Washington Post reported that the average pay for restaurant and grocery workers has surpassed $15 nationally, according to Labor Department data.

But even with more perks and fatter paychecks, companies say they are still having trouble reaching hiring goals. As a result, some are taking steps to keep from losing people already on staff. Target, for example, said it will hire fewer seasonal employees than last year and pay its current workers more.

“Usually we are deep into the temporary holiday hiring phase,” said Challenger. “Some companies aren’t even announcing temporary hires, they are just trying to backfill all these permanent positions that they haven’t been able to staff.”

The upshot: Stores are starting to put more emphasis on self-checkout and curbside pickup. They also are closing traditional checkout aisles during hours when staffing is short, resulting in longer waits that could drive more consumers to online shopping.

Truck drivers

What’s going on? The trucking industry has long faced a shortage of drivers, but the pandemic added another layer of concern. The workforce, which skews older, was at high risk for COVID-19, but tasked with traveling around the country at the height of the pandemic, helping to restock store shelves wiped clean by panic buying while keeping up with a surge in online ordering.

A confluence of factors pushed some drivers to retire early or pursue different careers. Now, the industry is struggling to attract new drivers as it tries to keep up with a global supply-chain nightmare that shows no signs of abating.

The upshot: Truck driving doesn’t pay badly ― an average of more than $61,000 in Massachusetts, according the job site ZipRecruiter ― but the profession demands serious tradeoffs, including weeks on the road, isolation, and tight quarters. It’s not exactly entry-level work, either, since it requires a commercial driver’s license.

Warehouse and logistics

What’s going on? Similar to brick and mortar retail businesses, companies involved in the end of the supply chain are trying to beef up their staffing, too.

UPS, eager to hire 100,000 seasonal workers, said some candidates will receive a job offer within 30 minutes of submitting an application. Amazon announced last week that it is hiring 1,500 seasonal workers in Massachusetts as part of a 150,000-person national hiring spree. The jobs pay $18 an hour and include sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000.

In a September earnings call, FedEx executives said labor shortages increased costs by $450 million, mostly because of higher wages, hiring incentives, and the money spent trying to meet shipping deadlines with fewer people. And FedEx still has 90,000 positions to fill ahead of the holiday shopping season.

The upshot: Challenger said the “bonus bonanza” could have unintended consequences, pulling people from other companies, instead of targeting the millions of people that left the workforce during the pandemic.

“I’ve heard at least anecdotally that people are coming into a job, waiting for their sign-on bonus, and then going to the [business] across the street and collecting that one,” he said.

And for those looking for work processing or delivering packages, the primary qualification this year may be having a pulse.

Uber/Lyft drivers

What’s going on? The pandemic was not kind to Uber and Lyft drivers, as people hunkered down at home instead of hailing rides to work, restaurants, and events. Even those people who did venture out were more likely to take their own car. Conversely, many drivers were not keen on the idea of interacting with a string of strangers in a small enclosed space. Demand for the service has returned, but not all drivers have.

Harry Campbell, founder of industry blog The Rideshare Guy — and a gig driver himself — said that when the ride-hailing business flatlined, many drivers signed up to work for booming food delivery services instead, and haven’t switched back.

“You put a lot less miles on your vehicle with [food] delivery, since people are ordering from local restaurants instead of calling 20 to 30 mile rides,” he said.

And with gasoline prices at their highest level in years, putting fewer miles on a car has a direct effect on a driver’s bottom line. According to the latest national data from AAA, drivers are paying $17 more on average to fill up their tanks than they did at this time last year.

“If gas prices are up and your earnings stay constant … you literally make less money,” Campbell said.

The upshot: Uber and Lyft have been spending millions of dollars to attract more drivers over the past few months, but in their latest earnings calls, executives said there’s still a long way to go.

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said in August that in major cities, “prices and wait times remain above our comfort levels.” When asked about whether riders may switch to alternative modes of transportation, Lyft chief financial officer Brian Roberts said its customers have been “relatively patient with the less than ideal prices and service levels that they face industrywide.”

Hotel workers

What’s going on? The labor situation is slightly different when it comes to hotel workers, said Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26, the local hospitality workers union. Because of the lack of events, conventions, and business travel, hotels are not scrambling to hire back all the workers they employed pre-pandemic.

About 80 percent of local union members are back at work, Aramayo said, but most are working only about 65 percent of the hours they used to, largely because not all hotel amenities ― including room service and hotel bars ― have returned. Hotel occupancy hovered at about 40 to 50 percent over the summer.

But Aramayo said hotels in areas such as South Florida, where the economic recovery has been more robust, are pulling out all the stops to hire people quickly, offering incentives such as wage increases and referral bonuses. It could be a sign of what’s to come in Boston.

“We have not seen that panic in this market; there are still people waiting to get their jobs back,” he said. “But once we hit 100 percent occupancy, I don’t know if there will be enough people.”

A possible tip of the iceberg is the already tight market for cooks. Aramayo said the new Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport had to offer pay at above union wages to fill positions before it opened last month.

The upshot: Although Aramayo said workers’ union contracts prevent an outright replacement of human jobs with technology, he’s seen more moves to head in that direction. He’s skeptical that getting rid of hotel perks — and employees — would be good for the industry in the long run.

“The hotel industry distinguishes itself from Airbnb and VRBO by saying ‘we offer a whole range of amenities,’” he said. “If industry makes a lot of cuts …I think a lot of travelers will say, ‘Airbnb is cheaper, why would I stay here?’”

In other words, hotel guests are going to want clean towels and refreshed bottles of shampoo every day, not just when they make a special request for such basics.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.

‘It’s at a time when we need it the most’: With Marathon back, hotels look forward to a busy weekend, but challenges remain

At the Revere Hotel Boston Common, excitement for the Boston Marathon was building all week. Runners were checking in. Employees decorated the lobby in yellow and blue. The Rebel’s Guild restaurant kitchen was planning a Sunday night pasta dinner.

It wasn’t quite like Marathon weekends of the past — those April days, before the pandemic, that kicked off Boston’s busy spring and summer tourism seasons. But the hotel was nearing full occupancy for the weekend, said general manager Mark Fischer, a welcome sign that the bump in leisure travel seen over the summer had not yet subsided.

“I can feel the buzz in my hotel lobby of runners who have started to head into the city, as well as friends and family coming to cheer them on,” he said. “We just have to keep the momentum going.”

Runner Kelly O’Rourke (center) of Minneapolis, wore his Boston Marathon jacket while shopping with his wife, Tina (right), at Marathon Sports on Boylston Street in Boston on Thursday.
Runner Kelly O’Rourke (center) of Minneapolis, wore his Boston Marathon jacket while shopping with his wife, Tina (right), at Marathon Sports on Boylston Street in Boston on Thursday.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Marathon weekend has always been a busy one for local hotels. Throw in a slew of other events — Red Sox playoff games, pandemic-postponed weddings that are finally happening, people just looking for a change of scene — and occupancy is up, at least for now, Fischer said.

Though hard data is not yet available for the fall, the Boston hotel market has been one of the slowest to recover in the country, according to data from Pinnacle Advisory Group, a Boston-based hospitality consultant.

Year-to-date revenue is down about 70 percent from 2019 levels. Business travel has yet to rebound, meaning hotels are relying on leisure travelers. Still, September was stronger than analysts expected, and October could follow suit — thanks to athletic events, university parent weekends, and warm weather extending vacation seasons.

”It’s a shot in the arm for the market, and it’s at a time when we need it the most,” said Sebastian Colella, vice president at Pinnacle Advisory Group.

Blue and yellow balloons decorated the lobby at the Revere Hotel Boston Common.
Blue and yellow balloons decorated the lobby at the Revere Hotel Boston Common.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Events like the Marathon and a revived fall sports scene have given hotels the guests they dearly needed to help make up for lost business travel, said Chris Allen, general manager of Boston Marriott Newton on Commonwealth Avenue, a mile and a half from Heartbreak Hill.

This weekend they are just about full, he said.

“Our weekends, Fridays and Saturdays, have been the bread and butter this fall, and even throughout the summer,” he said. “When [the Delta variant] started to surge in July-ish, that didn’t deem to put the brakes on the leisure travel as much as it kept the business travel at bay.”

But as with so many other areas of the economy right now, some workers are not benefiting from the rise in business, said Carlos Aramayo, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, a hospitality workers union. His members have only seen about 60 percent of their hours restored, Aramayo estimated, though the number may be higher this weekend. But whole departments at large hotels — typically people who worked in room service, dining, or lounges — remain at home.

“We strongly believe that in this moment, the interests of our members, the workers who want to get back on the job, align with the interests of our guests, who want to have a full service experiences at hotels,” Aramayo said. “From my perspective, a lot of the hotels in Boston are owned by real estate investment trusts …. Those are places that have been very aggressive at not reopening stuff. I think a lot of those financial entities are making these decisions without thinking of the guests.”

Officer Garcia took a picture of runners Tammy Kronebusch and Deb McClellan near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston on Thursday.
Officer Garcia took a picture of runners Tammy Kronebusch and Deb McClellan near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston on Thursday.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Among those employees is Zalinda Singh, who worked for in-room dining services at the Hilton Boston Logan Airport from 2015 until 2020, when she lost her job because of the pandemic.

“It’s been my favorite place to work,” Singh said. “You get a sense of, I just made this person’s day much better. Even if they had a bad experience somewhere else, I can make it better.”

Singh lives in East Boston with her husband and 11-year-old daughter. They lost a family member to COVID, and she and a few other relatives got sick. Since federal unemployment assistance for people laid off during the pandemic ran out in September, she said, it’s been hard to make sure her daughter isn’t too worried about money.

Singh would love to go back to work, she said — she misses her co-workers and interacting with guests, making sure their trays are exactly right so she can bring a bit of joy to their days.

“We’re patiently waiting,” Singh said. “We’re feeling that we’re long overdue.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.

Hotel workers hoping for pandemic job protections

MARYANN SILVA HAS worked for 19 years as a full-time banquet server at the Ritz-Carlton hotel on Boston Common. The 63-year-old Lynn resident sets up and serves food to guests for weddings, meetings, birthday parties, and corporate events. 

She was “temporarily” laid off in March when COVID-19 hit and the hotel closed. But the property still hasn’t reopened. Silva remains on unemployment benefits and has no idea if she will get her job back. Silva is divorced with no children and takes care of her 97-year-old mother. She had been earning $60,000 a year. Now, she has turned in her leased car for a less expensive one and worries about losing her home if she can’t continue to pay her mortgage.  

“It’s so uncertain,” Silva said. “You’re working, at least you know you’re out there making a living for yourself and your family.” 

An amendment that will be considered as part of the House budget debate this week could give laid-off workers like Silva a small measure of hope. It would require hotel workers laid off due to the pandemic the right to be rehired into their old jobs if those jobs are brought back. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, and pushed for by the union UNITE Here Local 26, which represents Boston area hotel workers.  

For Silva, the knowledge that her job is protected “would take a lot of stress off of my shoulders, she said.  

UNITE HERE Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo said, “What people are looking for is some peace of mind that if and when the job is recreated, they will have the first chance to take that job.”  

The head of the Massachusetts Lodging Association did not return a call for comment. The national American Hotel and Lodging Association has generally opposed these types of policies, arguing that they place an additional burden on employers struggling to recover from the pandemic. 

The amendment would not mandate anything, but would let individual municipalities adopt a “right to recall” policy. Under that policy, a hotel that lays off a worker due to the pandemic and then reinstates that job any time during a two-year period would have to offer the laid off worker their old job back. There would be civil fines for noncompliance. 

Decker said hospitality workers have been hit hard by COVID-19 “and if we’re going to really be able to have a strong recovery in our economy we have to make sure the workers who helped build this economy and are most experienced are given the shortest path back to their jobs.” 

Similar policies have been adopted on a municipal level in several California cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Oakland, although a statewide right to recall bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom, a Democrat, said it would create an onerous burden on employers. A right to recall policy was also adopted earlier this month in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Aramayo said the policy is necessary because of how hard the pandemic hit workers in the hospitality sector.  

According to state labor statistics, there were more than 380,000 Massachusetts leisure and hospitality jobs in January. That dropped to below 140,000 in April and has bounced back only partially, to 242,000 jobs by September. 

“Thousands of hospitality workers in the hotel industry were put out of work and continue to be out of work because the industry relies heavily on not just tourism, but also large-scale events that are not scheduled to happen anytime soon,” Aramayo said. 

Aramayo said many industry workers are older, female, immigrant and have little formal education. “These are not people who are going to be easily retrained for other jobs that would be equivalent in terms of income and standard of living,” he said. He worries that hotels will try to cut costs by replacing more experienced workers who have higher salaries with younger, cheaper workers. 

Aramayo said of 4,500 Boston hotel industry workers his union represents, only 400 to 500 are back at work. UNITE HERE workers do have a contract that requires managers to recall workers for up to a year after a temporary layoff. The amendment would extend that to two years and would also cover non-union workers. 

Laid-off Marriott Copley workers protest outside hotel

Workers who recently lost their jobs at the Boston Marriott Copley Place demonstrated in front of the hotel Friday, demanding that management provide full severance pay and reinstate them when business returns. The hotel, the second largest in Boston, reopened in August and laid off about half its staff — 230 workers and 30 managers — in September, according to Unite Here Local 26, the hospitality workers union that has been helping the non-union workers. Workers’ severance pay was capped at 10 weeks, instead of the previous 26, and they were told they could reapply for their jobs as new employees when demand rises.

Marriott Copley general manager Alan Smith, who previously noted that the hotel has experienced “unprecedented business impact,” told the Globe: “We respect the right to demonstrate.”

Many hotels have reopened around Boston, but business is bleak. Occupancy rates are hovering around 25 percent on average, and an estimated 8,000 hotel workers are still unemployed.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.