The unions representing 1,400 housekeepers, cocktail servers, cooks, and drivers at Encore Boston Harbor reached a tentative agreement with the casino early Thursday morning, narrowly averting a strike that was set to start Saturday.
The proposal will bring casino workers’ wages and benefits up to or above those of other union hotel workers around Boston, according to Unite Here Local 26, which represents 1,200 hospitality workers at the casino. An additional 200 drivers and warehouse workers from Teamsters Local 25 are part of the same contract.
The workers will vote to ratify the agreement on Friday. Details were not released.
“Our bargaining committee is happy to report that this agreement achieves our goals of reaching a five star contract equal to or better than the union standard at hospitality employers in Boston,” Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo said in a statement. “I am also happy that Encore Boston Harbor did the right thing by bargaining an agreement that guarantees jobs at the casino will be excellent jobs.”
Wynn Resorts, which owns Encore, said in a statement the agreement reflects its commitment to making the casino one of the region’s best places to work.
“Our company is built on the fundamental philosophy that only talented and empowered employees, working in an environment in which they feel valued and well compensated, can deliver our signature Wynn and Encore guest experiences,” said spokesman Michael Weaver. “Therefore, we are very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with Unite Here Local 26 and Teamsters Local 25 that fulfills our company’s goal of providing outstanding benefits and overall compensation, among the highest for our industry in the state of Massachusetts.”
Encore Boston Harbor opened in 2019, less than a year before the pandemic ravaged the hotel industry and shut down the casino for four months. The hospitality workers’ first union contract, finalized when the resort was still reeling in the spring of 2021, allowed for lower wages and fewer benefits than at other union hotels. It was a purposely short agreement, set to be renegotiated in two years, at which time the union planned to align Encore’s job protections with those at other union hotels around Boston.
Under the first contract, Encore housekeepers earned about $25 an hour — $2 less than unionized workers at other hotels, according to Local 26. Cocktail servers, who also make tips, are paid about $8 an hour, or about $6 less — although Wynn has noted workers at the five-star property make “far-above market average tips.” Workers also didn’t have a pension or access to the legal, education, and housing benefits other union workers do. They had previously been subject to a strict points system for late arrivals and excess sick days that could lead to termination.
Housekeeper Cecilia Gonzalez was exhausted on Thursday after negotiating until 1 a.m. as part of the bargaining committee, but “very, very happy.”
“My standard of living is now going to be better,” she said in Spanish, through a translator, noting that she would also be better able to support her mother in El Salvador.
Hotel workers around Boston flocked to the Encore Boston Harbor when it opened in 2019. They assumed, given that the Everett casino had agreed to let workers organize, that they would get pay and benefits on par with what other union hotel employees earned. And because it was part of the prestigious Wynn Resorts, home to five-star hotels around the world, the workers expected the resort to earn a premier rating — and provide compensation that matched the luxury service they offered.
But the pandemic-era contract didn’t live up to those expectations. And for housekeepers, there was also more work to do than in their previous jobs. The rooms are bigger and the standards are more exacting, they said, including folding guests’ clothes, organizing their toiletries, wrapping up electronics’ cords, and doling out exactly 16 packets of sweeteners at the coffee stations in each room, among other requirements.
Gonzalez, 59, started working at the Encore at the end of 2019, after 10 years at the Ames Boston Hotel, which had recently closed. She started out making $21.28 an hour, $3.42 less than she had made at the Ames, she said, but she was confident she would soon be making more. It was the most exciting new attraction in the city, and guests were streaming in to the luxurious property. She was also working harder.
“It’s difficult, but it’s now worth it,” she said. Getting the new contract “gives you more motivation, more energy to do the work.”
The hotels in the Boston area are still recovering from the pandemic. In the first five months of the year, the average occupancy rate was 69.9 percent, compared to 78.3 percent in 2019, according to Pinnacle Advisory Group. In May, the occupancy rate was 83.9 percent, nearly back to the May 2019 average of 87.7 percent.
At the same time, Encore has become one of the most lucrative commercial casinos in North America — the third highest-grossing outside Nevada — according to the American Gaming Association, bringing in $729.7 million in total gaming revenue in 2022, up 15 percent from the year.
And workers remain hard to come by, with more than 1,600 open hotel jobs in the Boston area, according to Indeed.com data compiled by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Both of these factors gave workers considerable leverage to demand better working conditions, said Tom Juravich, a labor studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“In many ways, employers are up against the wall here if they want to hold on to people,” he said.
And the fact that the Encore hotel workers’ first contract was negotiated during a time of great financial turmoil means they’ve been operating at a distinct disadvantage.
“This was part of what we didn’t see during the pandemic, is that there were all kinds of arrangements made that benefited employers,” he said. “As we’re coming out of this, unions are rethinking what happened and renegotiating what people deserve.”
Tina He and Durga Nepal were among about a dozen housekeepers who left the InterContinental Boston hotel for Encore, many of them recruited by their housekeeping manager, who also went to work at the casino, they said. The resort is closer to both of their homes, as it is for Gonzalez, and they believed their union benefits would remain the same. But the first Encore contract didn’t include many of those benefits, including a pension plan, funded by hotels contributing about $1.90 for every hour an employee works. When He, 59, left the InterContinental, she was one year short of the five years of service she needed to get monthly pension payments when she retires.
Now, however, after going more than four years without a pension benefit at Encore, she will presumably have it once again.
For Nepal, 40, becoming one of the first housekeepers on staff at Encore meant getting more seniority than she had at the InterContinental, where she worked for 11 years but still couldn’t get set days off because so many of her coworkers had been there longer. At the casino, she was able to get weekends off, although her pay was lower than that of her former coworkers at the InterContinental.
But with a new, more lucrative contract in hand, her decision — and the decisions of all her coworkers who left good jobs to come to the Encore — is finally paying off.
“We deserve this,” Nepal said.