Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

A path to the middle class, via hotel work

Student Cornelius Sanders (left) won cheers from teacher Christy Betit and student Joseph Singletary during a Mel King Initiative class.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Student Cornelius Sanders (left) won cheers from teacher Christy Betit and student Joseph Singletary during a Mel King Initiative class.

THERE IS arguably no path to middle-class life in Boston more swift and secure than a job in a big hotel.

It’s not easy work; service jobs usually aren’t. You’re always on, and on your feet, and the labor can be backbreaking. (Try lifting 13 mattresses per day.) But if you’re a member of Unite Here Local 26, the union that covers more than half of the hotel workers in Boston and Cambridge, the pay and benefits are striking: Entry-level salaries at $19 per hour; family health care for $12 per week; a housing program that gives you $10,000 toward a down payment.

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On Friday, in a nondescript building in Chinatown, 10 more people will likely find a way in.

They are the first official graduating class of the Mel King Empowerment Initiative, a program aimed at putting Boston African-Americans on the path to hotel jobs. Most of them have been working in the service industry: as a clerk at Target, a bouncer at nightclubs, a shoe-shiner and greeter at Logan Airport. Some have never made more than $9 per hour, which amounts to $18,720 per year, assuming you get paid vacation.

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And many tell the same story: They’d wanted to get into hotel work for years, but couldn’t get in the door.

Why not? There are conspiracy theories, but also structural issues. Hotels tend to promote from within. Openings spread through word of mouth. Immigrant communities, a major part of today’s hotel workforce, have created a robust job pipeline that other groups lack.

But union leaders have long wanted the Boston hotel workforce to reflect more of the Boston population. In their 2007 contract with hotel operators, they fought for language to study the problem, and fix it. That last part has taken some time; Mayor Marty Walsh deserves credit for helping push it through. As head of the Building Trades, Walsh had created an apprenticeship program aimed at steering women and minorities into construction jobs. Now the city is funding this hotel initiative at about $90,000 per year, through the per-square-footage “linkage” fees that major developers are required to pay on new projects.

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Getting into a Mel King Initiative class is tough. (There was a pilot class last summer, and another class is starting in July.) Union leaders did heavy outreach in Boston’s black community, but they were selective: Applicants had to go through three interviews and commit to six weeks at the training center, full time.

This training program, if it works, could start a new pipeline to jobs.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

This training program, if it works, could start a new pipeline to jobs.

They had to have “pizzazz,” said instructor Christy Betit, a former food server with a degree in theater education. At the Chinatown training center, she led improv games to build customer service skills: body language, tone of voice, conflict resolution. Students practiced hotel tasks in a mock kitchen and hotel room, then spent long days shadowing workers at area hotels.

I visited the students this week, at the tail end of their training, and they were happy — some of them giddy — about the prospect of working at a bustling hotel. Cornelius Sanders, 42, a burly guy from Dorchester with an easy smile, said he’d always wanted a hotel job, but took work instead at UPS, and as a bouncer and waiter. When he job-shadowed at the Renaissance Waterfront and the Westin Waterfront, he loved greeting customers at the front desk.

“If they’re having a bad day, I can make it better,” he said. “If they’re having a good day, I can make it better.”

A hotel manager could surely see his value. Indeed, hotels that contract with the union have supported this training program, said Local 26 president Brian Lang. Of 10 people in last summer’s pilot program, he said, four are working in hotels and three have strong prospects for jobs.

In a customer-facing business, a happy, skilled staff is, well, priceless. Maybe the management at the Hilton DoubleTree Suites Hotel in Cambridge, where workers just won a two-year battle to join Local 26, will come around to the idea.

Non-union hotels, Lang notes, still tend to pay poverty wages. But reasonable salaries and benefits don’t just make for a cheery workforce. They can stabilize a city, give families a lifeline. And as the city enjoys a building boom — and looks to a new casino and an expanded convention center — shouldn’t people from every neighborhood have access to some of the spoils?

This training program, if it works, could start a new pipeline to jobs. And for these first graduates, the payoff could be dramatic. Cynthia Thomas, 32, hopes a job at a hotel will help her move from her Roxbury apartment and into a house with her kids, ages 15 and 11.

“They’re so proud of me,” she said. They’ll be at the graduation ceremony today, with the rest of her family.

So will human resources directors from local hotels. The door to the middle class opens in 3 . . . 2. . . .

Kendal Gray (center) listened during a Mel King Initiative class on Monday.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Kendal Gray (center) listened during a Mel King Initiative class on Monday.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

Related:

Editorial: Marriott tipping plan draws attention to housekeepers’ needs

Jodi Beggs: Who actually is the middle class?

Scot Lehigh: GOP’s economic theories and real-world realities

2012 | Lawrence Harmon: All is not fair in Boston hotels

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