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Union calls on hotels to continue paying laid-off workers

Unite HERE Local 1 says Chicago neighborhoods are losing $5 million in earnings per week.

Karen Kent, president of UNITE HERE Local 1, speaks during a March 23 news conference at City Hall about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the union’s members.
Karen Kent, president of UNITE HERE Local 1, speaks during a March 23 news conference at City Hall about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the union’s members.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The union representing 7,600 Chicago hotel workers called on the industry Monday to continue paying laid-off members, saying the cutoff of paychecks is costing the city’s neighborhoods $5 million in lost earnings per week.

Unite HERE Local 1 said all but between 200 and 300 of its members have been furloughed because of the travel shutdown related to the coronavirus. While some businesses in other fields have continued to pay furloughed employees or extended health benefits, hotel owners or operators generally have not done so, the union said.

About 6,000 of its members live within Chicago, Unite HERE said. Drawing on that information, the union calculated earnings losses in every Chicago neighborhood. Karen Kent, Local 1 president, said the industry has enjoyed record years recently and has a pile of available cash, so it can afford to help its staff.

In a reference designed to get the attention of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the union said the 10 areas targeted by city programs for extra investment in her Invest South/West initiative are losing $1 million in earnings per week that could support local businesses.

The union directed criticism at Park Hotels & Resorts, which owns more than 2,400 rooms in Chicago, including the Hilton Chicago. The Tysons, Va.-based company has reported $1.3 billion in cash or equivalents on hand and has reported it will use some of it to pay a shareholder dividend.

In contrast, paying its unionized workers in Chicago for a month would cost $3.1 million, the union said.

The company did not have an immediate comment, nor did Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.

During a Facebook Live event the union hosted, Roushaunda Williams, a bartender for 18 years at the Palmer House Hilton and an Uptown resident, said, “Hilton has got to do more for us,” adding, “I feel its necessary and time for them to step up and say, ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’”

Marie Newman, Democratic candidate for Congress from Illinois’ 3rd District, appeared on the webcast to direct comments at hotel owners. “Please think about the workers every day. We’re much stronger when we work together,” Newman said.

In a comment provided by the union, Ofelia Martinez, a room attendant at the Park Hyatt and a Belmont Cragin resident, said, “I understand these are very hard times for all of us. This is the hardest situation I’ve ever been in.”

“We are all staying home to stay healthy. Now these corporations need to help sustain us in this hard time. They have more resources than us.”