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Furloughed US workers fight to return to their jobs after a year on pause

Michael Sainato in Florida
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Like many in the hospitality industry Harry East, a banquet server for over 20 years at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, has struggled with anxiety and the uncertainty of having a job to return to once the hospitality industry recovers from the pandemic – all while experiencing long delays and gaps in receiving unemployment benefits through the state of Florida.

Without action, East and 650 of his co-workers will be officially terminated from the Diplomat on 31 May, and the hotel has yet to agree to provide recall rights to workers that are still on furlough.

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East is currently advocating for Broward county, Florida, to pass legislation that would guarantee recall rights to workers in the hospitality industry who lost their jobs from coronavirus shutdowns in March last year. It’s part of a movement gaining traction across the US as the pandemic, finally, appears to be receding, but where hospitality workers fear they may be laid off permanently only to be replaced by cheaper, less experienced staff.

“The Diplomat is just a building. The workers are what makes the Diplomat,” said East. “The hospitality industry is about relationships. Some of the clientele have been coming to the hotel for years.

“The Diplomat doesn’t care about those relationships or the community. Without guaranteeing recall rights they are just viewing their workers as transactional.”

The Diplomat did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Maria Ruiz, a banquet server at the Swissotel in Chicago, and a member of Unite Here Local 1, who lost her job during the pandemic, is fighting for a city ordinance to ensure laid-off workers are offered their positions first before hotels hire replacement workers.

“I’ve been struggling. I haven’t been able to pay the mortgage on my house. My father, who is 83, and my younger son live with me and depend on me. It’s been very hard,’”said Ruiz. “I’ve worked at Swissotel for 24 years, half of my life. I’m 51 and I’ve been applying to jobs, but no one will hire me.”

Unite Here represented about 307,000 workers, mostly in the hospitality industry, before the pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, 98% of the union’s membership were out of work.

The leisure and hospitality industry was hit the hardest by the coronavirus, with overall employment in the industry falling by 23%, roughly 4 million jobs. It has also been the slowest industry to start recovering from initial job losses when the pandemic first hit the US.

And after more than a year, many workers in the industry remain jobless and unsure if they will be offered their jobs back. Those workers have, however, been cheered by some recent good news.

In California, workers and unions were successful in pushing through a statewide measure that was signed into law on 16 April, granting rehire rights based on seniority to hospitality workers throughout the state.

“It’s historic,” said Kurt Petersen, president of Unite Here Local 11 which represents workers in California and Arizona. “This is the biggest victory for workers during the pandemic.”

Marvin Alvarenga, a busser at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California for 11 years, was laid off during the pandemic and is relieved the recall rights legislation passed given the uncertainty and anxiety he’s experienced over the past year, including the loss of his health insurance which his wife relied on as she is currently battling cancer.

“Luckily, I still have my house but it’s been really tough to make ends meet while not having a job and I haven’t been able to send money to my mom in El Salvador,” said Alvarenga. “I’m really happy this law passed because it gives me and other workers hope we’ll be able to return to our jobs. It’s a lifeline to thousands of hospitality workers going through the same thing I’ve been going through.”

Similar legislation guaranteeing recall rights for workers in the hospitality industry has been passed in New York City, Philadelphia, New Haven, Honolulu, Minneapolis, Washington and Baltimore.

Nevada and Connecticut are considering statewide bills, while hotel industry groups have aggressively opposed local and statewide legislation to provide workers with recall rights. Hotel workers have also been directly pushing their employers to agree to guarantee recall rights to furloughed employees in New Orleans, Seattle, San Antonio and Boston.

Delali Amemu worked at the Nine Zero Hotel in Boston for 15 years before she was one of 52 employees who received notice from management in March that they would be permanently laid off after being furloughed for nearly a year due to the pandemic.

“It was shocking,” said Amemu, “Nine Zero was the only hotel not guaranteeing recall rights to workers.”

The union representing the employees, pushed back on the firings and eventually came to an agreement with the Nine Zero Hotel to reinstate the terminated workers and secure their recall rights with seniority for at least 30 months.

“These have been very difficult and unprecedented times, and we’re happy to have this matter resolved,” a spokesperson for the Nine Zero Hotel said in an email.

D Taylor, president of Unite Here, said the union is focusing on ensuring employers do not eliminate jobs, especially those belonging to senior employees or union-represented jobs that typically pay more, to cut labor costs – especially after corporate executives have received a surge in pay and bonuses during the pandemic.

“We’re quite concerned that employers will try to use the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of all the workers,” he said. ‘We feel very strongly people in our industry shouldn’t, frankly, be screwed over twice.”