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Hotels, unions forge compromise on ‘Right to Return to Work’ ordinance

Protracted negotiations that dragged on until late Monday resulted in the compromise, which a City Council committee approved on Tuesday.

Dozens of out-of-work hotel workers and members of Unite Here Local 1 gathered at Federal Plaza in the Loop in November to demand hotels to give them back their jobs, including their pay raises and benefits, once the economy recovers from the impact of COVID-19. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After marathon negotiations, Chicago’s reawakening hotel industry and union leaders forged a compromise on a “Right to Return to Work” ordinance requiring Chicago hotels to rehire employees laid off during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development approved that carefully-crafted compromise after hearing tearful testimony from several fired hotel workers.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) and Ald. Edward Burke (14th) had introduced the ordinance last fall to prevent shuttered hotels from reducing labor costs when they reopened by trying to replace older, more senior employees with lower-paid younger workers.

Their original version would have required Chicago hotels to rehire employees based on seniority, regardless of skills. Hotel operators branded the ordinance a logistical nightmare that would have slowed the pace of rehiring and prevented hotels from being “nimble” enough to fill the jobs they need to meet travel demand.

“You’re the reason why we’re doing this,” Committee Chairman Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) told one of the fired workers at Tuesday’s meeting. “You are very much appreciated, sister. I’m giving you a virtual hug.”

Changes to the ordinance include:

• Instead of giving laid-off employees 10 business days to decide whether to accept an offer to return to work, the right of refusal period has been reduced to five business days.

• The original version would have required Chicago hotels to rehire employees based on seniority, regardless of skills. The new version narrows that requirement to jobs in the same section.

“If I was a housekeeper, I can’t just file a lawsuit because there’s an opening in accounting that I was never a part of,” Lopez said.

• The worker protections would remain in place until Dec. 31, 2023, at least three years earlier than the initial sunset.

“If hotels follow the law as written and aggressively go after their employees, this will all have rectified itself by then between those looking to return and those who have taken jobs elsewhere,” Lopez said.

• Imposing a 15-day “curing period” that allows hotels charged with violating the ordinance to “make it right” before employees can file suit seeking relief.

Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, said he’s not at all certain laid-off hotel workers need protection at a time when employees in the hospitality industry are sitting in the catbird seat, as restaurants and hotels struggle to fill openings.

But, he said, “If we have to pass something, what you see here today is a fair compromise.”

“Do we need any more regulation or any more cost in an industry that’s been impacted more severely than any other industry in the city? No. But is it something that at least is workable and achievable? Can our hotels actually meet the mandate? Yes. What you see here today, hotels can fulfill,” Jacobson said.

“Now that this is behind us, let’s focus on something that will much more quickly get more people back to work. … We need to work in partnership with the mayor, with our unions to focus on our funding request — the $75 million” in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter countered that laid-off hotel employees are “predominantly women and people of color” who are “the most vulnerable economically and health-wise.”

They need and deserve protection — even at a time when restaurants and hotels are competing for workers.

“If you’ve had a long career working at these hotels, we want to make sure that those workers are called back in the order that they were let go. Without having a check on that, there’s no guarantee … that long-time workers aren’t penalized for where they were at in terms of their compensation or their age,” Reiter said.

“We hear this issue about workers shortages. But it’s sort of a misnomer to the extent that it exists. Part of the reason why you see workers shortages is it’s in areas where workers are like, `We don’t want to be exploited or abused anymore and we’re willing to hold out for more.’”

The Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Karen Kent, president of Unite Here Local 1, called the ordinance a “crucial first step in the equitable recovery Chicago workers deserve.”

“It’s no secret that women have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Women who work in Chicago hotels have been hit particularly hard. And no one needs the hotel industry to recover more than the women of color who depend on those jobs,” Kent told committee members.

“During the pandemic, too many women were fired through no fault of their own, some after decades of service. Now, as the pandemic fades and the city reopens, those women deserve to come back to work as guests return to Chicago hotels.”