Maria Ruiz was a banquet server at Swissotel Chicago nearly 24 years, putting her job before her family, sometimes sleeping in a hotel room for just a few hours between shifts when there wasn’t enough time to go home.
“I was at the hotel for 36 hours straight,” Ruiz said Tuesday afternoon at a news conference outside the hotel. “I wasn’t able to kiss my babies good night or hug them in the morning. My brother was killed two years ago and it was so hard — but even then I didn’t miss a day of work.”
Ruiz, 51, was one of hundreds of hotel workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty of their future was scary, but the Chicago City Council sought to alleviate that anxiety by passing the “right-to-return-to-work” ordinance to make sure hotel workers could get their jobs back instead of being replaced.
But a lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Swissotel of violating that ordinance by not rehiring Ruiz and two other banquet servers, each of whom had worked at the hotel at least 20 years.
“I dedicated my life to this job, to this hotel. I was so proud to work there,” Ruiz said. “Since being fired last year, my life is like a nightmare that I haven’t been able to wake up from.”
Unable to find new work or pay her mortgage, Ruiz said she’s on the verge of losing her house, The situation is just as dire for the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Marie Lourdie Pierre-Jacques and Maria Teresa Hernandez.
The ordinance had been pushed by union leaders and laid-off hotel workers. It called for Chicago hotels to prioritize seniority when deciding which former employees to rehire. The women involved in the lawsuit advocated for the ordinance, speaking out publicly in favor of it.
That original version, however, was opposed by the hotel industry as a logistical nightmare that would slow the pace of rehiring. It made no sense, they argued, to rehire someone based only on seniority if it meant having to hire a dishwasher to do an accounting job.
Eventually, a compromise version passed the Council. It narrowed the scope, requiring seniority be considered, but only within the same job categories.
But in their lawsuit, the women claim Swissotel offered positions to banquet servers with less seniority than the three women.
Swissotel didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a letter sent to the women’s attorney in August, it argued the ordinance doesn’t apply to the three women because they were “terminated,” not “laid off” — an important distinction, the hotel’s lawyers argued in the letter.
Stephen Yokich, an attorney for the women, said they anticipated this problem when they lobbied for the bill, but even so, “most responsible hotels in the city are following the law,” he said.
“Swissotel passed over the women who helped pass the law in the first place,” Yokich said. “Our message to the court will be the same as our message today: Swissotel should follow the law.”
Pierre-Jacques stood behind her colleagues during Tuesday’s news conference, often breaking down in tears as she remembered working while pregnant. Her co-workers often joked she would go into labor at the hotel because of the long hours she worked.
When she did gave birth to her son, she returned to work in just six weeks. She would drop the baby off at her sister’s house on her way back to the downtown hotel.
“I left him with my sister and for a long time he thought my sister was his mother. It broke my heart every time he called her ‘Mommy.’” Pierre-Jacques said through tears. “No one can understand that feeling unless you have been through it. I sacrificed that time with my son because I thought I was being a good worker. I thought if I worked had and give my all, my job would respect me back.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter joined the women and their supporters outside the hotel to show his support in the lawsuit which calls for the women to be reinstated and for them to receive back pay from the date of when they “should have been reinstated.”
“We believe that as guests return to Chicago and hotels increase staffing, hotels should recall the workers who have dedicated their lives to Chicago’s tourism industry,” Reiter said. “These women were fired by Swissotel Chicago during the pandemic, they’ve also been on the front line of advocating for Chicago’s hotel worker’s rights. … We are here to support these workers who are seeking to enforce their rights.”
The Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.