As Layoffs Continue, L.A.’s Hotel Workers Are in Crisis

”Things are just awful right now on so many levels,” says one hospitality union rep

Raquel Lezema kept it together until she was home. Then she locked herself in her bedroom and cried.

The mother of three had worked as a housekeeper at an upscale Beverly Hills hotel for eight years but now she didn’t know whether she’d be able put food on the table.

Twenty two employees were terminated from their positions at Mr. C Beverly Hills. None were offered severance or “recall rights”—insurance they’d be rehired once the coronavirus crisis had subsided.

“I consider myself a good worker and I have given one hundred percent of myself to that company,” Lezema says. “For them to treat me this way, it hurts deeply.” (Mr. C Hotels didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.)

Since the coronavirus crisis began, the U.S. hospitality industry has been in free fall. As of last week, nearly 3.4 million direct and indirect jobs had been lost, with California bearing the brunt.

Over 400,000 hospitality jobs in the state have evaporated—including vendors, supply-chain workers, and others who rely on the industry—according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

The virus’s impact is being felt at hotels across the price spectrum, from the Holiday Inn to gilded Hollywood haunts. On March 19, the Sunset Strip’s famed Chateau Marmont laid off nearly all workers, and reportedly did not offer severance pay or health insurance extensions.

“This makes 9/11 look like the good times,” says Kurt Peterson, co-president of Unite Here 11, a local union that represents 30,000 hotel and food service workers, mainly in L.A. County. In April, he expects membership to tank, leaving a mere 500 workers left.

“The stadiums are dark, the universities have closed, the airports are dwindling, and hotels are shuttering every day,” he says. “Things are just awful right now on so many levels.”

Even with room occupancy currently in the single digits, Peterson thinks employers like Mr. C and Chateau Marmont should make assurances to their employees that they’ll hire them back once the virus is tackled.

“It’s just inconceivable that we wouldn’t step up as a city and protect them and make sure they have some job security,” he says.

Some politicians are also chastising hotels for the seemingly brutal way they’ve handled recent layoffs. District 11 city councilmember Mike Bonin wrote a letter to the general manager of Mr. C Hotel, shared with Los Angeles, expressing “grave concern” about hotel management’s decision to suddenly fire its staff.

“I am deeply disturbed to receive reports that you have thrown out your employees with almost nothing in this moment of crisis and insecurity,” he wrote.

He added that he saw it as a “moral imperative” to provide severance pay and health insurance benefits in full for all laid off employees through the entirety of the outbreak and that the hotel should “commit to respecting the seniority of its employees during the rehire process after the crisis subsides.”

But what makes the hospitality industry’s situation so dire is that no one knows how long it’ll be before Americans are traveling again. Last week, Trump extended social distancing guidelines until April 30.

Peterson says he’s open to plans for converting hotels into quarantine spaces for doctors, first responders, and the sick. Some hotels in Asia have even rolled out “quarantine packages” for travelers looking to self-isolate.

“Obviously the greater good is to provide housing for people who can’t self-quarantine or are symptomatic,” Peterson says. “But I am nervous about the safety of our members so we’ll just have to see.”

In the short term, Peterson thinks the city should hire unemployed hotel workers to cook emergency meals for residents across the region. “We’ve got workers who prepared food for banquet kitchens, hotels, the convention center, even Dodgers Stadium,” he says. “Let’s turn those kitchens on and produce the food our city needs.”

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