The Four Seasons on Boylston Street, a five-star property with views of the Public Garden and luxury suites starting at around $1,000 a night, let go nearly half its staff last month, citing economic constraints due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While they were told they would be able to reapply for their jobs, the many longtime workers among the 192 who were let go — including the entire front-of-the-house staff at the Bristol Lounge — said they received less than half the severance they were entitled to in the employee handbook.
The hotel, which furloughed employees after closing March 24 — and doesn’t have an official reopening date but is taking reservations starting June 23 — said that, like all hotels around the world, the Boylston Street property has had a “severe reduction in business.”
“The impact of COVID-19 on the travel and hospitality industry has been devastating and Four Seasons Hotel Boston is not immune,” hotel management said in a statement. “The extreme loss of revenues has forced us to make some difficult decisions to reduce costs while managing the short- and long-term business realities. This includes permanent layoffs.”
“Each decision was painstakingly and carefully reviewed," it continued.
Hotels have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with nearly 50 properties closed in the Boston area alone and more than 500 shut down statewide, according to the Massachusetts Lodging Association. A few have started reopening, but most are waiting a few weeks or months, or more, said lodging association president Paul Sacco. Sacco declined to comment on the Four Seasons or other hotels terminating workers.
The hotel industry employed nearly 31,000 workers statewide in 2017, and more than 12,000 in Suffolk County, according to US census data.
What’s even more distressing than the mass firing, said Unite Here Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo, is that it could be part of a wave of hotels engaging in widespread terminations in an attempt to permanently eliminate jobs or start over with a lower-paid workforce. Hospitality is one of the biggest industries in the city and one of the few with well-paid working class jobs, many of which are filled by people of color, Aramayo said.
Local 26, the local hospitality workers’ union, is assisting the Four Seasons staff, which is not unionized.
The union hasn’t been able to confirm any other large-scale firings, but if there are more, and workers aren’t rehired, Aramayo said, it could cause serious economic damage.
“I am worried this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “If this is really where this industry is going to go, it is going to create massive social dislocation in the Greater Boston area.”
“Given the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus and police violence on Black and brown workers," Aramayo added, "the last thing we need is a major industry firing hundreds or even thousands of workers of color.”
According to Local 26 research, the Boylston Four Seasons is owned by descendants of a Saudi Arabian businessman who cofounded E. A. Juffali & Brothers, one of the largest private enterprises in the Middle East. The union said the family was also an investor in the Four Seasons on Dalton Street, which did not respond to questions.
After they were let go, 46 of the Four Seasons employees decided to fight back. They contacted Local 26 and sent a letter to hotel owners and management rejecting the “disrespectful, even insulting” severance offer.
“We are the people who enthusiastically created and produced five star, five diamond service,” the workers wrote. “Over the many years of our tenure, we employees made a real contribution to the company as we contributed to your profits, grew the value of the company and cemented the reputation of the brand. . . . Your shameful actions now place upon employees the unwarranted burden of company losses when none of us ever participated in the upside.”
In the letter, the 46 workers included photographs of themselves, an array of Black, white, Chinese, Cape Verdean, Ethiopian, Haitian, Latino, Indian, Moroccan, and Nepalese faces.
The Four Seasons handbook calls for one week of severance pay for every year worked, workers said, plus an additional six paid weeks for employees with more than 10 years of service, capped at 26 weeks. There is a clause in the handbook, however, hotel management noted, that in the event of a national emergency, the hotel is not obligated to provide separation pay. Yet, the hotel said, it still provided up to 12 weeks’ severance and full medical benefits to furloughed employees through the end of May.
If employees are rehired, they will be paid their previous salaries, the hotel said.
Ricardo Mathelus, 40, had been a server at the Four Seasons’ Bristol Lounge since he was 19. Longer than that, actually, if you count his high school internship. Mathelus, who was born in Haiti and grew up in Dorchester and Mattapan, was “unbelievably proud” to work at the Four Seasons, he said: “It was part of me.”
Since he was let go, he said, a range of emotions has coursed through him: “I feel embarrassed. I feel insulted. I feel disrespected. I feel unwanted. I feel used, actually.”
Mathelus, who lives in Braintree with his wife and two daughters, ages 11 and 8, knew he had to speak up about what the Four Seasons did, just as he would want his children to do if they were being bullied.
“Being a Black man, with what’s going on, it’s going to be really tough to start all over again,” he said. “When I was at the Four Seasons, I knew who I was. I had a purpose. Now, career-wise, I’m lost.”
James Jennings, professor emeritus of race, politics, and urban policy at Tufts University, said firing any worker right now is unethical, given that they do not have access to the kinds of resources from the government that big institutions do. And it’s especially egregious for a high-end hotel serving the wealthy that profits off the backs of the much less wealthy cooks and cleaners and bellhops it employs, he said.
The action also undermines efforts to rectify the damage that has been done in recent months, Jennings said — economic, racial, and otherwise.
“This decision verges on the immoral,” Jennings wrote in an e-mail. “It shows a complete disregard of the enormous and serious events that have just hit us as a city and society.”
Chang Liao, a 32-year housekeeping veteran who worked most recently as a lobby attendant, was dismayed to find out the Four Seasons had retained co-workers with less experience. She was making nearly $1,000 a week, she said, and her husband, who is retired, and her mother, who lives with her in Quincy, both depend on her income. She would have been entitled to 26 weeks of severance pay in normal times, she said; instead she got 12.
"I've been working so hard in order to be able to retire from this job," she said, speaking in Cantonese through a translator. "I am almost 60 years old. There is a pandemic right now. How am I going to find a good job to take care of my family?"
Liao started to cry as she talked. “I feel little hope for my future,” she said. “At my age, to find a job like what I had is not easy.
“I want the whole world to know that behind the fancy name of the Four Seasons, this is what the company did to its employees.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.