Facing a mounting backlash, the Four Seasons on Boylston Street is granting full severance pay to 192 employees it laid off in May, reversing a controversial decision to offer far less than they were owed as the Back Bay hotel reels from the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The five-star hotel’s treatment of the employees ― who accounted for nearly half of its staff ― sparked outrage from politicians, regular guests, and a hospitality workers’ union supporting the nonunion workers, after the layoffs were reported last week by the Globe.
The virus has devastated the hospitality industry, making layoffs unavoidable, but the Four Seasons caught flak for the insensitive way it handled the situation because the hotel is known for its stellar service provided by housekeepers, servers, concierge staff, and others. Many of those laid off had worked there for years.
In a letter sent to employees Tuesday, Michael Pedder, the hotel’s general manager, apologized for how the company handled the situation.
“The events and outcry of the last two weeks have given all of us much to reflect on,” Pedder wrote. “In large part thanks to your efforts you have reminded all of us that, notwithstanding the circumstances, we have a duty to honor ― with respect and professionalism ― our people and their long-standing service and loyalty to the hotel. To the extent that we recently failed to meet that standard, we are sincerely sorry.”
The Four Seasons handbook calls for one week of severance pay for every year worked, plus an additional six paid weeks for employees with more than 10 years of service, capped at 26 weeks. But it also contains a clause stating that in the event of a national emergency, the hotel is not obligated to provide separation pay.
Hotel management opted to provide up to 12 weeks of severance, plus full medical benefits through the end of May.
It’s unclear who made the decision to not pay employees their full severance, but the bad publicity reverberated to the highest levels of the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, including CEO John Davison, according to people familiar with the matter.
The letter to employees said hotel owners “secured the necessary funding” for full severance packages. The Back Bay property ― one of two Four Seasons in Boston ― 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, according to Unite Here Local 26, the union helping the Four Seasons employees that represents thousands of hotel workers in greater Boston.
“I’m proud of my co-workers who took a stand for what they knew was right, overwhelmed by the support of the community, and pleased that the Four Seasons honored our employment contracts,” said Adam Lefevre, 49, who was a server at the hotel’s Bristol Lounge for two decades.
Other workers also said they were glad the hotel was restoring their full severance but are calling for a meeting with hotel management. The hotel didn’t provide the dollar amounts employees were being offered, workers said, nor did it address the fact that they were told they were no longer allowed on hotel property and would have to reapply for their jobs if they want to come back.
The Four Seasons said that when jobs become available, it would give preference to anyone who was laid off, without a formal application process. Those who are rehired will have their tenure reinstated.
“This whole fight has never been about money, it’s about doing the right thing,” said Ricardo Mathelus, 40, who had been a server at the Bristol since he was 19 years old. “Throwing severance at us and saying everything’s all set when it’s not, it’s a lot more than that. It’s about protecting workers’ rights so in the future this doesn’t occur again.”
Trish Hebert, a server for more than 25 years, said she was happy the Four Seasons was seeing things differently but still finds its actions “appalling.”
“I was good enough to help build their brand to their five star/five diamond status, and now they don’t ever want to see my face again?” she said. “Because I’m 58, the chances of finding a job seem very slim. . . . Once my unemployment runs out, how am I going to pay my rent?”
The Four Seasons faced a growing uproar from high-powered patrons, including CEOs and members of Congress, who vowed not to return to the Bristol until laid-off employees got better treatment. The Bristol’s entire front-of-the-house staff were among the 192 employees let go. The restaurant has long been a popular gathering spot for Boston’s power brokers.
US Representative Joseph Kennedy III reached out to a former board member to help the employees. Senator Edward Markey invited Mathelus and Unite Here Local 26 leader Carlos Aramayo to his Malden home on Sunday, saying the longtime workers were treated “shabbily” as if they were “pieces of furniture to be moved in and out of the hotel.”
Markey — who is facing an increasingly contentious primary challenge from Kennedy — wants the hotel to do more.
“This offer from the Four Seasons is not what the workers asked for, nor what they need,” Markey said in a statement. “Workers can’t pay their bills with an apology. They need their jobs back when the hotel starts hiring again.”
Kennedy, in a statement, said: “Although the Four Seasons’ decision was a step in the right direction, this episode further illustrates why we must fight harder to ensure that workers in this country are protected and treated with the respect they deserve.”
Hotels have been hit particularly hard by the economic fallout from 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. More than 3,500 hotel employees in the Boston area have been let go with the largest layoffs at the Sheraton Boston, the Marriott Copley Place, and Boston Park Plaza, according to data compiled by the Globe since March.
Hospitality is one of the few industries left in the city providing well-paid working-class jobs, many of which are filled by people of color.
A few hotels have started to reopen, but most are waiting weeks, months, or more to resume operations. The Boylston Four Seasons, which furloughed employees after it closed on March 24, has started accepting reservations for stays starting June 23.
Restoring the severance is a good start, said Aramayo, president of Local 26, the hospitality workers union the Four Seasons workers turned to for help. But it appears the hotel is trying to permanently eliminate positions, he said. Once business returns, he fears, it could hire less-experienced workers at lower rates. And this could happen across the industry. The union said that as the economy recovers over the next two years, all hospitality workers should be guaranteed their old jobs back.
“The responsibility of navigating through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression should fall broadly on everyone’s shoulders,” said Aramayo, “not just on the shoulders of the largely immigrant Black and brown workers who make up the front line of this industry.”