Laid-off workers should be first in line for jobs as hotels bounce back from pandemic

Any discussion about public subsidies to help Chicago hotels reopen should begin with their commitment to offer jobs first to laid-off workers.

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In November, laid-off hotel workers demonstrated in Chicago’s Loop, demanding that hotels rehire them once the economy recovers from the pandemic.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s hotels are beginning to reopen as the pandemic subsides, preparing to do business again as summer tourist attractions like Lollapalooza return, and the industry is asking the city for $75 million to help cover reopening costs.

We don’t know if that’s a good idea. Chicago could spend that $75 million, a portion of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan funds, in a dozen other good ways.

But we do know this: Any discussion about subsidizing the costs of reopening for hotels should begin with a commitment by the industry, enshrined in an ordinance, to bring back workers laid off during the pandemic before hiring new employees.

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Hotels have been devastated by the pandemic. Their entire reason for existence — to offer food and lodgings to people going places and meeting in person — came to a halt. But employees of the hotels have been hurt as much or more. Tens of thousands of Chicago hotel workers who were paid modestly to begin with were laid off last year because there no longer were jobs to do — no bed sheets to change, no bathrooms to clean, no tables to set.

“No industry has been harder hit by the pandemic than the hospitality industry, whose workers are overwhelmingly women of color,” Karen Kent, president of UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents workers at 51 hotels in the city, told us. “These women have worked years, if not decades, in the same hotel, spending late nights, weekends and holidays taking care of guests. They deserve the right to return to the work they love as hotels begin to rehire.”

We have no doubt that hotels will be recalling many of those workers without outside prompting, just as a matter of good business. Hard-working and experienced workers are prized. But we also have no doubt that some employers won’t want to bother with the hassle of reaching out to former employees as job applications from potential new employees pile up in human resources. Hotels might also see this as an opportunity to permanently unload higher paid workers.

A proposed ordinance pending in the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, dubbed the “Right to Return to Work” bill, would require hotels to notify laid-off employees by seniority when jobs become available for which they are qualified and give them 10 days to accept or decline the offer.

That would include the job the laid-off worker previously did — a hotel housekeeper, for example, would have to be offered a housekeeper job that opened up — but also any job for which that worker could reasonably be trained, just as any new employee would have to be trained.

The Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, as you would expect, opposes the ordinance, saying it would create an unnecessary burden on hotels that already are in financial dire straits because of the pandemic and will be struggling to reopen. Hotels usually hire back former workers first in these situations anyway, as they did when they rebounded after the attacks of Sept. 11, the association argues, and record-keeping requirements of the proposed ordinance just add to their costs. The industry worries about litigation, as well, if some former employees feel they were overlooked.

The reality, though, is that Chicago’s hospitality industry was doing strong business before the pandemic, and it will do strong business again as the pandemic lifts. The industry can afford to treat its workers — including the laid-off ones — right. Hotels will be hiring back workers, with the incurred expenses of doing so, only as business and revenues pick up.

The Chicago ordinance is supported by UNITE HERE, which reports that only about a fourth of its 16,000 members are working. The ordinance was introduced in November by Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) and Ald. Ed Burke (14th).

Similar ordinances and laws have been approved in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and the state of California, and casino workers are pushing for the law in Nevada.

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