For more than three decades, the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons has been the place where the movers and shakers of Boston, from CEOs to members of Congress, break very expensive bread.
But will they keep coming after learning that the five-star hotel let go nearly half its staff and may have shortchanged them on severance?
For some power brokers, it’s a resounding no, even though the coronavirus pandemic has crippled the hospitality industry. They won’t return — unless employees are treated fairly.
“What they’ve really said is they’re not a great company. They pretend to be a great company,” said Jack Connors, founder of Boston ad agency Hill Holliday, who dines at the Bristol about twice a month at a window table overlooking the Public Garden.
Another regular, Larry Moulter, former CEO of BostonCoach, is outraged. He says the Four Seasons is nothing without its employees.
“These men and women have been part of my experience, and they need to be taken care of,” said Moulter, who also oversaw construction of what is now TD Garden. “I don’t go to the Four Seasons because it’s a brand. It’s because I know the people there.”
On one level, the indignant reaction on the part of a cadre of well-off customers hardly seems newsworthy. They can just eat in some other fancy restaurant that isn’t generating negative publicity.
But this is much more than that. This is about the loss of good-paying jobs, many of them held by people of color, at a time when staying silent on the sidelines is no longer an option. Money talks, and it gets action. Businesses such as the Four Seasons should be held accountable when they act so callously.
Beth Boland, a partner at Boston law firm Foley & Lardner, another Bristol regular, says she is waiting to see how the hotel ultimately resolves the situation with its employees. The way it plays out could determine whether she continues to make reservations for herself and book space for the conferences she organizes.
“I am closely monitoring the news about how the hotel (or any employer) treats its employees during the pandemic, which will determine whether I will spend my entertainment dollars there once we are able to reconvene," Boland wrote in an e-mail. “Not only do we want to be thoughtful about how we direct those funds anyway, but it sends a broader message to our membership about our organizational values.”
My colleague Katie Johnston reported this week that the Four Seasons on Boylston Street let go nearly 200 workers last month — including the entire front-of-the-house staff at the Bristol. They are among more than a million people who have been laid off or furloughed in Massachusetts as the economy shut down to contain the coronavirus.
But even when you’re showing someone the door, there’s a proper way to do it.
The Four Seasons apparently exercised a clause that absolves the company from paying workers their full severance during a national emergency. Many longtime employees told the Globe they received less than half of what they were owed. For a property that charges $1,000 a night for a suite and $34 for a burger, there’s only one word to describe this: Inhumane.
The story caught the eye of Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who says he dines at the Bristol a few times a year. Kennedy reached out to a former board member he knows to raise concerns. He’ll be eating elsewhere unless employees get a fair shake.
“If we allow major corporations to hide behind this pandemic as they callously dismiss loyal workers, we will be repeating the same mistakes of our past," he said in a statement. "Four Seasons should immediately reconsider this decision, rehire these workers and reexamine how they treat the workers who keep their business functioning.”
The ex-hotel employees have also gotten the attention of Boston city councilors Kenzie Bok and Ed Flynn, who plan to introduce a resolution next week urging the Four Seasons to dole out better severance packages.
In a statement, the Four Seasons described the layoffs as a “last resort" and said that the company did its “best to go above and beyond what was required by our employee handbook. . . . We wish that we could have kept everyone, but we are in the midst of a once in a generation health and financial crisis."
Plenty of businesses have had to cut payroll during the last three months, but few have been as shameless about it as the Four Seasons, whose reputation for stellar service has been built almost entirely by its staff — from the maids to the waiters to the concierge.
“I know managers have to make hard decisions," said Boston communications strategist Geri Denterlein, another longtime customer of the Bristol, but “you have to live your values.”
Times are tough, but if the vaunted Four Seasons lacks the integrity to do right by its employees, its patrons should make the hotel pay another kind of price.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.