As Workers Rise Up During “Striketober,” 10,000 Hospitality Workers March, Picket, Vote to Unionize, and More in Fight for Good Jobs

After extraordinary pandemic hardships, hospitality workers in 29 cities across U.S. and Canada say it’s time to “Come Back Stronger” with variety of events on October 28

NEW YORK – After months of lay-offs and hardships, over 8,000 UNITE HERE Hospitality Union workers across the U.S. and Canada are demanding better jobs in a variety of events on October 28 – including marches, pickets, rallies, a strike vote, a unionization vote, as well as internal events such as meetings with management. Workers’ renewed militancy has made headlines during so-called “Striketober,” and hospitality workers are fighting for a recovery with good jobs under the banner “Come Back Stronger.”

At the peak of the shut-down, 98% of the union’s members in hospitality were out of work, but the union has been a model of resiliency, fighting to restore good union jobs in hospitality and unionize new industries. Today, many hospitality workers say their jobs haven’t come back even as business rebounds and employers complain of a labor shortage. In hotels for instance, companies like Hilton have announced new policies automatically opting guests out of daily housekeeping. UNITE HERE estimates that ending daily housekeeping industrywide would eliminate up to 39 percent of all U.S. hotel housekeeping jobs and cost housekeepers $4.8 billion in annual lost wages.

But today’s events in cities across the United States and Canada show housekeepers and other working people in hospitality determined to make a comeback.

“The hotel industry wants to go back to full occupancy without ever bringing back the full workforce, but we are fighting to stop them,” said Yolanda Chen, a housekeeper for five years at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco, where hundreds of hotel workers will march on October 28. “Over the past few months, Hilton has only called me back to work three times, and I cannot find a job with the same wages and health care that my coworkers and I have won through many years of organizing. We want to get our jobs back so our families can recover from the pandemic.” Read our report, “Playing Dirty,” to learn more.

Meanwhile, workers at HelloFresh – America’s #1 meal kit company – are voting on forming the booming meal kit industry’s first-ever union. The elections come with public approval for unions at record highs. While meal kit orders exploded and HelloFresh’s US revenues doubled last year, workers endured a COVID outbreak, safety issues, and poverty wages. Today, 400 meal kit workers at HelloFresh’s facility in Aurora, CO begin voting on whether to join UNITE HERE, while another 770 workers in Richmond, CO will soon vote on the same question.

“For HelloFresh, the pandemic was a business opportunity, but for us workers, it’s been a nightmare,” said Yesenia Bustos, who works in shipping and receiving at HelloFresh in Aurora, CO. “I’m voting for the union because we’re under so much pressure to make the meal kits, workers are constantly being injured in our kitchen, and my wages aren’t enough to support my family. These are the jobs that have been created by COVID, and they should be good jobs.”

“Workers are fed up with bad jobs and unsafe working conditions, and now they’re seizing the moment to come back stronger in an economy that has favored too few for too long,” says D. Taylor, International President of UNITE HERE. “Every time there’s a crisis, the hospitality industry cuts jobs to boost profits, but we are fighting for a recovery where no one gets left behind. We are the Comeback Union, and we are determined to fight for one another, to bring the good jobs back and grow the union movement.

Workers and union leaders, including President D. Taylor, are available for interview. Please contact Ted Waechter at twaechter@unitehere2.org and MJ Leira at mleira@unitehere.org to coordinate.

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UNITE HERE is the hospitality workers’ union in the U.S. and Canada, representing over 300,000 workers in hotels, gaming, restaurants and food service, airports, and more. Ninety-eight percent of its members were laid off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and sixty percent remain out of work today.

 

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.

Harvard Dining Workers Overwhelmingly Ratify New Contract

The union representing Harvard’s dining workers, UNITE HERE Local 26, overwhelmingly ratified a new five-year contract with the University Thursday, securing compensation increases and job protections for current and laid-off employees after four months of negotiations and engagement with a federal mediator.

The vote was 99.45 percent in favor of the tentative agreement the two parties reached last week. The contract includes a 15 percent increase in wages over the duration of the contract and increases to summer stipends, as well as a guarantee of working hours for current dining workers and jobs for some recently laid-off employees. The agreement also maintains the health care plan Local 26 won in 2016 after going on strike for 22 daysrocking campus.

“This contract makes sure Harvard’s dining hall workers are part of the economic recovery from COVID-19,” Michael Kramer, executive vice president of Local 26, said in a written statement.

Out of 364 votes, 362 union members voted in favor of the contract, easily clearing the simple majority threshold required for ratification.

Harvard University Dining Services Managing Director Smitha S. H. Haneef shared the news with HUDS management Thursday evening.

“I am looking forward to the future with and for you to build our food systems and hospitality,” she wrote in an email obtained by The Crimson. “This is a big day for all of us, as one HUDS team, to progressively advance Harvard mission through our service.”

Under the new agreement, wages will be increased retroactive to June 21, with annual raises between 2.75 and 3.25 percent totaling $4.03 per hour over the five years, according to the union’s contract summary. The summer stipend, which pays HUDS employees over the vacation regardless of number of shifts they work, will also gradually increase from $3,000 to $3,800 by the end of the agreement.

The contract also maintains the union’s current health care coverage, which was a landmark achievement in its last round of contract negotiations. In 2016, Harvard agreed to pay insurance copays on the University staff and hourly insurance plans for HUDS employees and created a new premium contribution tier for employees who make less than $55,000 annually.

Additionally, HUDS will maintain the “authorized hours of every current HUDS employee” on the payroll as of Dec. 1, according to the union’s contract summary.

The protections against layoffs and hours reductions come after the union alleged last month HUDS management was planning to cut 20 percent of full-time dining positions in the residential houses after reviewing the University’s proposed schedules for the next academic years. Harvard has since withdrawn those schedules.

Edwin J. Hinspeter, a Leverett House shop steward, said he believes the job security side letter is unprecedented for Local 26.

“It’s a really good contract for us,” he said after casting his ballot. “I believe the job security language — we’ve never had language like that before.”

Willie H. Moore, an assistant cook at Harvard Law School, said he voted yes because he wants to maintain his current position until retirement.

“I’ve been there 22 years,” he said. “I would love to retire there and continue my life.”

HUDS will also offer positions to employees formerly contracted from dining management company Restaurant Associates who were laid off from the Graduate School of Design and the Law School earlier this year, according to the Local 26 contract summary.

According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, Harvard is seeking to fill more than 50 positions, and former RA employees are welcome to apply.

Claudia J. Escobar, a former catering employee at HLS who was laid off from her position, said the contract may allow her to return to work as a Harvard employee.

“It is our right to [go] back to work because we [were] working during the pandemic, and I think we deserve to go back to work,” Escobar said after voting to ratify the contract.

Hilary J. Flores-Hebert, a Business School dining worker and volunteer at the polling station, said she decided to volunteer to help other members gain a contract that guaranteed greater job security. In addition, she said she supports the continued health care benefits and compensation increases.

“I think that’s super important, given that we’re essential workers, that we put so much of our time and effort to contribute to this community,” she said.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at cara.chang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.