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Doing right by hotel workers — and the hotels that laid them off — during the pandemic

Legislation pending in the Chicago City Council would require hotels to offer laid-off workers their old jobs back before hiring a replacement.

 “These women have worked years at the same hotel,” said Karen Kent, president of UNITED HERE Local 1. “They deserve the right to come back to work when the guests come back.” 
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Marie Lourdie Pierre-Jacques lived the quintessential American “bootstrap” story. She worked hard, raised a family, paid her dues.

As a young woman, she immigrated from Haiti to the United States. She spoke little English.

She took a menial job at the Swissotel Chicago downtown. She worked her way up to banquet server. It was a job she loved — her word, “loved” — for 18 years.

“I gave it my whole heart,” she told me over the phone. “When the hotel would call me at 2 a.m. to cover for someone, I would go in. Sometimes, I would stay at the hotel overnight for three days in a row so I wouldn’t be late for a shift.”

Then COVID-19 devastated the hospitality industry.

Pierre-Jacques, who is 47 and lives in Bolingbrook, was laid off last February, then fired in October.

“When I found out I was fired, I couldn’t believe it. It is still difficult to talk about it. After all those years, all the sacrifice. How could they do something like that? The hotel told us we are all a family.”

I could hear the tears in her voice.

Legislation pending in the Chicago City Council, the Hotel Worker Right to Return Work Ordinance, would mandate that hotels offer former employees like Pierre-Jacques the right to return to their old jobs before they could hire outside replacements.

Nationwide, 8.4% of Black women and 9.1% of Latinas are unemployed, according to December’s federal jobs report.

COVID has hit them hard. They are suffering and dying at higher rates and, because they tend to work in service jobs, more likely to lose their incomes.

UNITE HERE Local 1, which is pushing for the ordinance, represents 7,600 workers at downtown Chicago hotels; 53% are women, and the vast majority are women of color.

“No one needs the hotel industry to recover more than the women of color who take care of the guests,” union president Karen Kent said in a statement. “These women have worked years, and often decades, at the same hotel. They deserve the right to come back to work when the guests come back.”

Pierre-Jacques didn’t get rich at the Swissotel. For many years, she heaved massive serving trays and coffee urns to earn just enough money to support her two sons, ages 11 and 17.

“But now,” she said, “I am left with nothing.”

She has no health insurance. Her sons have asthma. She suffers from blood clots.

“I worry about what we will do if something happens to me or my kids,” she said, describing how stressed she is feeling. “My hair is falling out when I comb it.”

The ordinance is “absurd,” said Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotels and Lodging Association, which represents hotel owners. It’s a “logistical nightmare” that would create unnecessary burdens, he said, and may also be unconstitutional.

“Most hotels downtown are fighting simply to survive and not get foreclosed and closed permanently,” Jacobson said. “I think it would be so counterproductive in actually delaying our ability to rehire people quickly.”

For example, the law would require hotels to send a registered letter to each former employee and wait days, even weeks, before it could move to fill a position, he said.

Hotels are eager to rehire their workers, Jacobson said, just as they did after recovering from earlier economic disasters, such as the 2008 market crash and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What would really make sense, Jacobson said, would be for the union and hotel owners association to team up to pressure elected officials to get hotel workers vaccinated more quickly so they could work safely.

“Our most important priority, that we share with UNITE HERE, is getting people back to work,” he said.

Make it happen.

Laura Washington and Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet will interview special guests on hot political topics at their next At The Virtual Table, at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 18.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.