Terminated Marriott Copley staff’s new jobs show a working class being forced further down the economic ladder

Beatriz Torres almost made it. She worked for 23 years at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, cleaning and serving food to VIPs in the concierge lounge, and planned to stay for two more so she would qualify for free stays at Marriott hotels for life.

But last September, Torres lost her job, along with half the hotel’s staff, when business plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The property is slowly coming back to life, but Torres, 70, isn’t part of it; nor are most of the 229 hourly employees terminated along with her. Torres now works at Starbucks at Logan Airport, making roughly $7 an hour less than she did at the Marriott.

Torres was among scores of employees, many of them immigrants, forced out after working at the city’s second largest hotel for years — decades, in some cases — making upward of $20 an hour, enough for some of them to buy houses, send children to college, and support family members back home. Nearly a year later, many have found new jobs, but often at reduced wages, without the steady hours and retirement benefits they had before. At the same time, Marriott Copley has contracted out its sports bar and restaurant, Champions, to the Yard House, which is paying far less for some jobs than the hotel did.

From the outset, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the country’s lower-wage workforce, particularly those in the service industry. And as the dust settles, it’s becoming clear that many corporations seeking to recover losses are doing so on the backs of their workers, pushing them out, and down the economic ladder, as they look to cut labor costs permanently.

A woman read a paper handed out by a fired hotel worker in front of the Marriott Copley in August.
A woman read a paper handed out by a fired hotel worker in front of the Marriott Copley in August. PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

Torres, who is originally from Mexico, said her meager savings are gone after being out of work for 16 months, as are her dreams of spending her retirement visiting family in Texas and Spain. So far, she’s managed to pay her bills and hold on to the room she rents from an El Salvadoran family in Everett, but she’s fearful for her future.

“It’s like a nightmare that I’m living,” Torres said. “What is going to happen to me?”

Marriott Copley did not respond to requests for comment.

Like service workers around the country, the terminated hotel employees have been caught in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 crisis.

Immigrant women with limited English skills and no higher education who worked in food service and accommodation suffered more job losses during the pandemic than any other group in Massachusetts, according to a report released in March by the Workforce Solutions Group, a statewide advocacy coalition.

Hotels in Boston, where more than two-thirds of hospitality workers are people of color, are still reeling from the pandemic. As of July, hotel room revenues in the area were down more than 70 percent year-to-date compared to 2019, according to Pinnacle Advisory Group — the slowest recovery after San Francisco and New York among large markets.

This is a critical moment for the industry, said Chip Rogers, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. As travel continues to languish, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers could be at risk without federal aid, he said, noting that in Boston, properties have received little to no pandemic relief.

Across Massachusetts, employment in the hospitality and leisure sector was down 20 percent in July compared to two years ago, according to Pinnacle, by far the hardest hit industry in the state.

Hmad Birali, a former dishwasher at the Marriott Copley, recently landed another hospitality job, as a housekeeper at a small hotel in Brookline. But he’s now making just $15 an hour, with no 401(k) match and no guarantee of full-time hours. He recently applied for several jobs at the Marriott Copley, where postings for Yard House dishwashers are listed at $17-$20 an hour — less than the $25 an hour he was making at the Marriott, but more than he’s making now. So far, there’s been no response.

Birali, 51, is worried that he won’t be able to afford the rent on the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife in Revere, or to send money to his mother and 15-year-old son in Morocco.

“They used me,” said Birali, speaking in Arabic through a translator, noting that he worked nights for five years, never called in sick, and did any job managers asked of him. “In the end they just threw us in the street.”

Hmad Birali, a former employee at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, prepared dinner for himself in his apartment in Revere.
Hmad Birali, a former employee at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, prepared dinner for himself in his apartment in Revere.NATHAN KLIMA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/THE BOSTON GLOBE

Last year, essential workers were hailed as heroes, said Darlene Lombos, head of the Greater Boston Labor Council, and now, with corporate profits squeezed or nonexistent, they’re expendable — that is, an expense that can be cut. On Labor Day, the council held a rally in front of the Marriott Copley to condemn what Lombos called “the throwing away of Black and brown workers who are actually risking their lives to save ours and keep us going as a society.”

Payroll is the industry’s biggest expense, said Sebastian Colella, a Boston-based vice president at Pinnacle Advisory Group, and considering the robust staffing levels and decent wages at many properties, reining in labor costs is the first thing they’re going to look at. And those changes could be permanent, he said: “That’s something that might stick.

Indeed, the chief executive of Host Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Marriott Copley, told investors in earnings calls that the company viewed the pandemic as “an opportunity to redefine the hotel operating model” that could result in major cost savings. Host executives have mentioned eliminating front desk staff, reducing restaurant offerings, and doing away with daily room cleanings as part of reexamining minimum “base labor standards.”

Host did not respond to requests for comment.

In some ways, economic downturns give corporations both the impetus and the cover to restructure their workforces, said Randy Albelda, a recently retired economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“It’s an old story in the United States,” she said. “Workers who have essentially scratched their way up, and corporations that have the upper hand in terms of holding the power to hire and fire and to negotiate wages.”

A Marriott employee recognition certificate given to Hmad Birali hung on a wall in his apartment in Revere.
A Marriott employee recognition certificate given to Hmad Birali hung on a wall in his apartment in Revere.NATHAN KLIMA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/THE BOSTON GLOBE

Several hotel companies, including Marriott and Hilton, have already ended automatic daily housekeeping services at many properties — a practice that, if implemented industrywide, would slash the room attendant workforce by up to 39 percent, according to estimates by Unite Here, the national hospitality workers’ union. Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26 in Boston, which has been helping the non-union Marriott Copley workers, said this push to streamline staffs will not only lead to fewer jobs, it means the workers who remain could have more work piled on them.

One woman who still works at the Marriott Copley said that the hotel is so shorthanded that some employees are being asked to work six days a week. Workers are also on “pins and needles” about getting fired, said the woman, who asked not to be identified to protect her job security.

“I’m afraid because it might happen to me,” she said. “The managers are saying we’re safe, but look what they did to the other workers.”

Even before the COVID crisis, hotels had been seeking to cut labor costs as they fought off increased competition from home-sharing companies like Airbnb, said Isaac Wanasika, a management professor at the University of Northern Colorado, and properties are now focused even more on “reducing the human footprint.” A number of other local hotels got rid of workers during the pandemic, with no guarantees they’d be rehired, including the Revere and the Quincy Marriott. (The Four Seasons and Nine Zero also terminated staff, but later agreed to recall them when business returned.) A number of hotels around the country have also permanently reduced their staffs, including the Marriott Marquis in New York, which ousted 850 employees and is outsourcing its restaurant and catering operations.

Some who were let go from the Marriott Copley see a disconcerting pattern in the people hired to replace them. The five concierge lounge attendants, all immigrant women ranging from age 50 to 70, including Torres, filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination for “age, race, and nationality discrimination” after they applied for and were rejected for jobs at the hotel’s new M Club lounge, jobs they said the general manager had told them before the pandemic would be theirs. Of the nine people hired to work there, all of whom previously worked at Champions, seven are white, according to the complaint, while their age range skews just slightly younger, from mid-30s to mid-60s.

“We were all immigrants and people of color, but they chose to make their lounge attendants younger and whiter,” said Patricia Tchoumi, 53, who is from Cameroon and made $23 an hour at the Marriott Copley, where she worked for 17 years.

Tchoumi just started orientation as a room service attendant at the Boston Omni Hotel at the Seaport, which opened last week. Her hourly wage is far lower than before, though she’ll also get tips. But she doesn’t know if she’ll get full-time hours; last week, she only got 15. Tchoumi is anxious to catch up on the mortgage at her three-family home in Lynn, where her unemployed tenants have been unable to pay rent.

Aside from the M Club staffers, it appears that most of the 50 Champions workers have not been rehired. The Yard House did not respond to questions about bringing back hotel staff.

Ramona Pena, 59, was a cook at Champions for 16 years, and has yet to find another job. She’s been applying in restaurants and stores, but worries that her age and limited English are holding her back. Her fiance also worked at the Marriott Copley, in security, but has been out on disability. Their hotel jobs allowed them to buy a house in Taunton in 2015, but now that her unemployment has run out, Pena, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, is worried about how they’ll pay the mortgage and support her parents.

When she found out she was being let go, she felt betrayed. “I felt it in my stomach, in my head. I still feel bad,” she said in Spanish through a translator, starting to cry. “I was definitely planning on working there until I retired.”

Labor advocates decry the outsourcing of staff jobs, noting that it allows companies to shift responsibilities to outside contractors and makes labor standards more difficult to enforce. But the immediate payoff is hard for companies to resist, said Wanasika, the University of Northern Colorado professor. “Outsourcing is an effective short-term strategy to reduce costs and risk,” he said.

Tahira Dzindo, a hostess at Champions for 14 years, came from Bosnia in 2001 with her husband and two young children and two backpacks, part of a wave of refugees fleeing the war torn country. They spoke no English and had no money, but Dzindo, 45, and her husband got jobs and eventually bought a house in Malden and put their daughter through college. “I was working double shifts,” she said. “Double, double, double to make as much as I could.”

No one called Dzindo about working at the Yard House, and she didn’t bother applying, considering hostess jobs are listed at $16 an hour — $8 an hour less than what she made there.

“That’s not going to get me anywhere,” said Dzindo, who is one of the lucky ones, recently landing a hostess job at a hotel restaurant making slightly more than she did at Champions. “[People] want to work, but they don’t want to work for nothing.”

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

Terminated Marriott Copley workers launch hotel boycott

A group of workers terminated last fall by the Boston Marriott Copley Place are launching a boycott against the hotel, escalating their fight to be reinstated as the summer travel season approaches and the beleaguered hospitality industry struggles to recover.

The employees, backed by the local hospitality workers union, are calling on guests and organizations to take their business elsewhere until the hotel agrees to reinstate the 230 workers who were let go. The workers are also demanding full severance pay instead of the reduced packages they were offered.

The boycott, set to be announced at a rally in front of the Marriott Copley on Friday morning, comes at a crucial moment for the hotel industry, which is starting to show signs of life as people get vaccinated and plan vacations for the first time in more than a year. The pandemic has devastated properties in Boston, which suffered bigger drops in revenue per available room than any other market besides New York and isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

As the second-largest hotel in Boston, and one of the few with a ballroom big enough to host more than 1,000 people, the Marriott Copley hosts many galas and dinners. GLAD, the Boston-based legal advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, hosts a fund-raiser there every year, including one scheduled for November. Since learning about the boycott, GLAD has taken action, executive director Janson Wu said in an e-mail: “We have let the Marriott know that we are not comfortable hosting our annual fundraising dinner there should the status quo continue. We hope that they will change course and do right by their employees and the community.”

Workers also plan to reach out to politicians, religious groups, and other worker advocacy groups to promote the boycott, which could be relatively easy to comply with given that travel isn’t expected to fully rebound right away. That means there will be more rooms available than usual, giving guests plenty of options to choose from, said Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26, which doesn’t represent the Marriott Copley workers but has been supporting their efforts. The boycott is a serious commitment for workers, who will continue picketing at the hotel, and it’s crucial they are front and center delivering the message, Aramayo said.

Local 26 said it has prevailed in all four boycotts it launched over the past decade: at three Boston-area Hyatt hotels starting in 2009, when housekeepers were fired after training their replacements, which resulted in a million-dollar settlement; and at Le Méridien Boston Cambridge in 2012, DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Boston-Cambridge in 2014, and Hilton Boston Back Bay in 2016 — all demanding a fair process to join the union.

In 2014, Market Basket customers boycotted the grocery chain — an action encouraged by local lawmakers — in support of workers who walked off the job after their beloved CEO was ousted; after more than six weeks of protests, the CEO was reinstated.

“This is one of the worst examples we’ve seen of using the pandemic to cynically make permanent changes to the workforce,” he said. “And I think hopefully once the traveling public is aware of that, and given that there are going to be a lot of deals out there, they’ll choose to spend their dollar elsewhere until this gets resolved.”

Alan Smith, general manager of the Marriott Copley Place, declined to comment on the boycott.

After reopening in August, the hotel quickly moved to permanently lay off half its workforce, including Adi Fejzic, 52, whohas worked at the hotel for 19 years, after fleeing the war in Bosnia and arriving in Boston with nothing. He started in housekeeping and became a banquet server a few years later, regularly working double or triple shifts and sometimes staying overnight at the hotel in order to get up before dawn and start again the next day. One year, when 700 Muslim guests from Malaysia were staying at the hotel during Ramadan, Fejzic said, he worked through the night to serve meals to guests who were fasting during the day.

“Sometimes I couldn’t see my kids for four or five days because I’m working always,” he said.

Fejzic and his wife, who is a housekeeper at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, which is also a Marriott property, put their son through college at UMass-Amherst and were paying their daughter’s tuition there until they were both furloughed.

Fejzic and his wife, who is a union member with a 30-month right of recall to get her job back, are also struggling to pay the mortgage on their condo in Melrose. They’ve started to sell furniture and clothes, he said.

“I feel really like a piece of garbage,” he said.

Fejzic supports the boycott and is grateful to be doing something that could help him and his coworkers get their jobs back. The Marriott Copley was his first and only job in the United States, and he doesn’t know what else he can do to support his family.

“Who is going to take me at 52 years now?” he said. “I’m really scared. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

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

Recall Legislation to be Introduced in Front of Boston’s Worst Offender on Jobs Crisis

Contact:  Nicki Morris, 857-498-2495, nmorris@local26.org
Twitter: @unitehere26

Press Conference and Picket Line: Recall Legislation to be
Introduced in Front of Boston’s Worst Offender on Jobs Crisis

UNITE HERE Local 26 joins Senator Joe Boncore, former Marriott Copley
employees fired in middle of pandemic, to back recall legislation

What: After months of mass firings in the hospitality industry, UNITE HERE Local 26 called
March 22, Massachusetts’ Reopening Day according to Governor Charlie Baker, the deadline for
Boston hotels to publicly state that they planned to retain their furloughed workers. Not a
single hotel stepped forward to state their plan to recall their workers. Over the past year,
thousands of hotel workers sat at home, waiting for the phone to ring. In cases like the Marriott
Copley and the Revere Hotel, workers there have been permanently fired. Many feel utterly
betrayed, their decades of service and loyalty suddenly amounting to nothing. Because hotels
refuse to do the right thing on their own, the Hotel Comeback Bill is being introduced in the
Massachusetts House and Senate. The legislation seeks to get the hotel industry back on track
by allowing experienced workers to return to work once the COVID crisis is over.

At the Marriott Copley, after surviving on employment since March due to the COVID-19
pandemic, Marriott Copley workers were shocked and horrified to learn their furlough was
permanent. In September, over 230 Marriott Copley workers were fired. They were not offered
the chance to return to work when the crisis was over, but instead told they could reapply,
losing decades of service they put into Marriott. To add insult to injury, many fired workers
were offered less than half of the severance pay they had expected after years of loyalty and
hard work due to a sudden change in policy. Although the Marriott Copley workers are not
union members, UNITE HERE Local 26 is supporting them in their fight for just treatment.

When: Tuesday, March 23, 2021 from 10:00am-11:30am
Where: Marriott Copley Place, 110 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02116
Who: Recently fired Marriott Copley hotel workers, UNITE HERE Local 26 President Carlos
Aramayo, Massachusetts Senator Joe Boncore
Note: Interviews available by phone, and after the event over Skype, and Zoom

Why: With over 8,000 union and nonunion Boston hotel workers unemployed, the members of
UNITE HERE Local 26 are proud to be working with Senate Joe Boncore and Representative
Marjorie Decker to provide some peace of mind for thousands of regional hotel workers. With
protections in place, Massachusetts could allow hotel workers to return to their positions once
the COVID-19 crisis is over, if and when their positions return.
Similar policies have gone into effect in several California cities, including Los Angeles, San
Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, and Philadelphia. Recently, Providence, Rhode Island became
the first East Coast city to provide such protections for hospitality workers.

UNITE HERE Local 26 is the hospitality workers’ union and represents over 12,000 members working in the hotel,
food service, and airport industries in Boston and Rhode Island.  Learn more at www.local26.org

UNITE HERE represents over 300,000 members working in the hotel, gaming, food service, and airport industries
across the US and Canada. Learn more at www.unitehere.org.

Boston Marriott Copley Boycott Press

How it started (Nov-Dec 2020):
We officially launch the boycott and start reaching out to customers (Ongoing):

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.