As California’s hotel and hospitality industry prepares to open its doors for the first time since the pandemic, one person who is happy to check in once again is Walter Almendarez. The former bellman at the Chateau Marmont hopes to return to work since being laid off last March after 23 years on the job.
When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of the legendary Hollywood hotel last year, Almendarez and his hundreds of co-workers were given no windfall, no severance pay, and no apology from management. All they got was a standard company email that said their last day at work was March 19.“We all were really surprised and shocked,” Almendarez told CEB.  “I was told if I had anything that belongs to the hotel to drop it off on my last day–like I was nothing after all these years that I gave them–23 years, others gave them 40 years.”

When he lost his job and health benefits, Almendarez was forced into survival mode. He filed for unemployment and called his bank to let them know he would likely be behind on his bills and sought whatever help he could get. His family–including his wife, daughter and elderly parents–became dependent on their local food bank. They cut luxury items like meat out of their diets as they struggled to pinch pennies so they could stay afloat while living in L.A.

Then last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring hotel, event center, airport hospitality and janitorial employers to first rehire workers laid off during the pandemic when jobs become available, a move that came after the governor vetoed a more expansive labor-backed bill AB 3216 last year. Workers are supposed to be called back to work in order of seniority, which definitely helps longtime employees like Almendarez, who’ve managed to weather the storm and stay in California. However, the reality of putting this new bill to work is not as cut and dry as it seems for both employers and employees who want to move forward with the plight of the pandemic in their rearview.

“I’ve never seen anything like this at the outset, because none of us understood how deep and profound it would be on the industry, but more importantly on the workers who had built that industry and provided the profits for the hotel industry in particular,” said Kurt Peterson, co-president of the labor union UNITE HERE Local 11.

Prior to the pandemic, hotel revenues and developments were at an all-time high, Petersen says. It was also a period where many hotels like the Chateau Marmont were in search of what many hospitality businesses refer to as acquiring “a new look”–which generally means firing older employees and minority workers and replacing them with a younger, whiter workforce, Petersen said. As of press time, the hotel has not responded to requests for an interview.

As a result of lost revenues during COVID, Marriott terminated 60 percent of their workforce everywhere except the union hotels. Then places like the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes fired just about everybody, along with hotels like the Chateau Marmont. Though it was catastrophic for the industry as a whole, the pandemic might’ve perfectly aligned with the restaffing goals of many hotels had SB 93 not required hotels to offer to recall workers in order of seniority.

“They all did it with the idea that they were going to just start anew, when they got out of the pandemic,” Petersen said. “So that was the problem.”

Opposition to Re-Hiring the Unemployed

Authored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), SB 93 requires employers in hospitality and business services industries to offer new positions for similar work to employees laid off during the pandemic within five days of creating a position. The employee has to have been employed with the business for more than six months in the 12 months preceding Jan. 1, 2020, and have been laid off for nondisciplinary reasons related to the pandemic. In cases in which more than one laid-off employee qualifies for a recalled position, the employer is required to offer it to the worker with the longest tenure.

The law, which will be in effect until the end of 2024, includes hotels and private clubswith 50 or more guest rooms, event centers, airport hospitality and service providers, as well as janitorial, building and maintenance crews to office, retail, or other commercial buildings.

Vocal opponents of SB 93 say the bill puts undue strain on businesses because of fines and fees associated with rehiring employees. Many have argued that businesses would likely be hiring back those same employees anyway because they’re already being experienced and trained, and that the new law puts unjust liability on the employer.

“To put the burden, to the fines, the fees, the liability on the employer is unacceptable,” Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon) told the press when the bill was first proposed.

Business owners affected by the bill also say that it could wind up hurting them.

“It takes away our right to hire who we want to,” Los Angeles hotel assistant manager Martin Castillo told The California Globe. “It’s either hire them back or pay this fine, even if there are better candidates out there from closed hotels and things like that. It’s nuts. A lot of people want jobs still, and this limits us in who we can get.”

Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) said California should not be imposing new requirements on businesses or exposing them to even more liability, which will obstruct their rehiring and recovery. “This bill works against the momentum small businesses need to help them hire and get people off unemployment as quickly as possible,” Fong said in his statement against SB 93.

The Law Won’t Be Like Flipping a Light Switch

The new bill will take time to see full results, as hotel travel, tourism and conventions will be slow to come back. Economic experts do not expect larger corporate conferences and other big events to return until well into 2023.

“In that regard, extending the bill till 2024 was a good catch by the legislature,” SoCal applicant’s attorney Craig Glass told CEB. “Because the first year here, I think people are used to Zoom and not traveling for businesses. Leisure travel is going to pick up like a bomb, summer and winter, but that doesn’t make up for the conventions and those sorts of things that go on. That’s where the real money is.”

However, without restaurants and bars running at full capacity, if at all, the jobs for food and beverage staff will be much slower to return than other jobs in hospitality. “You have to realize there’s no food and beverage in there, which is almost half the workers in hotels,” Petersen said. “Out of 350 workers at the Hyatt Regency, I bet 150 are food and beverage, which might come back at by the end of this year if we’re lucky.”

One major flaw in the system that could potentially help or harm the employment situation for workers is that letters sent to recalled workers will only be sent to their last known address. As the state with the most severe housing cost burden in the country according to the United Way, many unemployed workers in California have either moved out of state or been forced into homelessness.

“So when they start hiring they just have to send the letter to the last address, which doesn’t mean they have to look for them,” Glass said. “That’s kind of a flaw. Employers could say ‘Yeah, they may come in every day and ask about a job, but we sent a letter to their last address and they didn’t answer.’”

Another problem with hiring for employers may arise if only a portion of employees who were let go from a hotel or restaurant are asked to come back because there aren’t as many jobs available as there used to be.

“The lawsuits are really going to come if the employers only need 50 people out of 100. How do chose the 50 and then do they get sued by the other 50?” Glass said.  “They’ll ask ‘Why did you take him over me? Because I’m younger because I’m not a minority? Because not this or that?’ That’s gonna be where the rub is.”

Making Employee Voices Heard

Despite this grey area where employees who are recalled might actually receive their notices and get their jobs back, SB 93 does include a $6 million budget for enforcement by the state labor commissioner. The budget would include hiring inspectors to go out to worksites and obtain information to determine whether a business has complied. The inspectors then request an administrative hearing before the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. It will also be up to employees to be their own best advocates when it comes to getting their jobs back, Petersen said.

“This is going to be partially the workers themselves who have to speak up, because if they don’t, then no one’s going to know,” Petersen says. “So the onus is frankly on the employees themselves, and we’re hopeful that many of them and we’re hearing from them will speak up.”

Since 2020, UNITE HERE workers have been boycotting the Chateau Marmont, which has tried to avoid hiring back workers like Almendarez by calling itself a private club instead of being open to the public in a period before SB 93 came along and included private clubs in the list of businesses that fall under the new law.

The boycott calls for the Chateau Marmont to demonstrate a commitment to respecting its workers’ years of service by rehiring them in accordance with their legal rights and to ensuring that all workers–regardless of their race, sex, or background–feel treated with dignity and respect. In addition to the workers and the California Democratic Party, a number of high-profile celebrities have endorsed the boycott, including Jane Fonda, Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Sheen, Tom Morello, Edie Falco, Sarah Silverman and many others who are calling on the historic hotel to respect the workers that have helped it reach its legendary status in Hollywood.

Working Towards a Promising Future

Despite some of the hostility and fighting that’s taken place over the rehiring of Almendarez and his co-workers, some of whom have worked at the hotel as long as 40 years, he says he is excited to know that he is eligible to finally get called back to his job at the hotel.

“I’m excited, because now I’m waiting for the owner to call me to come back. Not only me but all my coworkers are excited to go back and pay the bills and do what we used to do. So we’re excited to go back, we’re just waiting for the city to fully open up,” Almendarez said.

Almost as important as the certainty of their next paycheck is the hope that it will come regardless of some of the realistic complexities of SB 93.

“The one thing they haven’t lost right now is their right to return to work…I can’t even comprehend the psychological cost on people,” Petersen said.

Before the state fully opens up, organizations like UNITE HERE have encouraged all former employees to get vaccinated, to put themselves in the best position to get back to their jobs as quick as possible. Though the hospitality business has many more improvements to make for the health and safety of their workers, priority number one should be rehiring staff and making a commitment to keeping them safe.

“The position [workers] were put in during the pandemic was ‘Do I go to work, so I can pay my bills, but potentially get sick, or do I decline to go to work and lose my home, but maybe stay safe?’” Petersen said. “No one should have to choose between their home and their physical well-being.”

 

 

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