The union representing local hotel workers has launched a website identifying dozens of hotels in the area that it says have not committed to rehiring furloughed workers when business returns.
“With over 8,000 union and nonunion Boston hotel workers unemployed, UNITE HERE Local 26 is calling on Boston’s hotels to provide some peace of mind for thousands of regional hotel workers,” the website reads.
The site includes a pledge for hotels to sign by Monday, the date the state increases public gatherings to 100 people indoors and 150 outdoors.
Thirty hotels, nearly all of them unionized, have agreed to recall their workers once business comes back, according to the site. But 28 properties have not — at least not publicly — according to Local 26. The union searched websites and media mentions but did not contact the nonunion hotels directly, so it’s possible some of these hotels, which have no obligation to inform the union of their plans, simply haven’t announced that they intend to rehire workers.
The union views the campaign as an opportunity for these hotels to make their intentions known, though others in the industry are concerned that this public shaming may be premature, given that hotels have few guests — some remain closed entirely — and mass rehiring has not yet ramped up.
But with the general population poised to get vaccinated and restrictions being lifted, tourists could start arriving in larger numbers, especially as more meetings and weddings take place. And workers who have been out of work for more than a year — an estimated 85 percent of the hotel workforce — are anxious to know if they’ll get their jobs back.
The Revere Hotel Boston Common, Boston Marriott Copley Place, and the Four Seasons on Boylston Street fired large portions of their workforces last year. While the Four Seasons later promised staffers they’d be first in line for their jobs when business returned, the other two properties have made no such promises.
Esther Montanez, a housekeeper at the Hilton Boston Back Bay, said she hasn’t heard anything about getting rehired. Montanez and her union coworkers have been pressing the hotel to commit to rehiring people once there’s enough work, including trying to present managers with a petition earlier this week, but they refused to meet with the workers, she said. Montanez, a 31-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old, has been getting by on unemployment but no longer has health insurance.
“We’re just asking that when there’s work to come back to, that we come back,” she said in Spanish, through a translator. “It’s hard when you’re trying to get some kind of confirmation from a company that won’t communicate with you and won’t give you that reassurance.”
The Back Bay Hilton did not respond to requests for comment, and Hilton’s corporate office declined to talk, noting that the property was a franchise and not operated by the company.
Paul Sacco, head of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, said it’s only logical that hotels would rehire their existing workers.
“We’re acutely aware of the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on so many of our employees,” he said. “I feel that there will be ample opportunities for associates to return to full employment in an improving economy.”
Boston’s hotel market has been hit harder than most, given the harsh restrictions during the pandemic and the heavy reliance on corporate travel and group reservations. In January, occupancy in the Boston area was just 17 percent, compared to nearly 67 percent last January, and revenue per available room was down 81 percent, according to the hotel consultancy Pinnacle Advisory Group.
Local 26 is concerned that employers will be looking to make up for financial hardships by reducing labor costs, whether it’s bringing in less expensive contractors, replacing front-desk agents with machines, or giving guests the option to have their rooms cleaned less often. Hotel jobs pay decent wages and can help build wealth for the many Black and Latino workers, predominantly women, in the industry, said Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo.
“A basic level of respect should be given to the incumbent workforce to offer them those positions before opening those positions to everyone else,” he said. “I don’t think we’re asking for something completely off the wall here.”
Local 26 is also pushing for legislation that would allow Massachusetts cities to adopt a law giving hotel employees who were laid off during the pandemic first dibs when their positions return. Similar ordinances have been passed in several cities around the country, including Providence.
Hotels desperate for guests could face a backlash from socially conscious tourists who find out a property hasn’t committed to bringing back its workers. Following a year of economic devastation and social upheaval that has laid bare inequities in our society, consumers are paying more attention than ever to who they do business with, said Sandy Lish, cofounder of the Boston public relations firm the Castle Group.
“There’s no hesitation at all to call out business or brands that are not doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s cancel culture, right? I hate to use that term but people are quick to say, ‘OK forget it ... I’m not staying there.’ ”