Megan McHale

For the furloughed employees of the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, the hotel’s long-awaited reopening is only a partial victory.

The downtown hotel resumed operations at limited capacity on Sept. 17 following months of scratched reopening plans. It is the last hotel in downtown New Haven to reopen since the March surge of COVID-19 forced many of the city’s hotels to close. The closure led the hotel to furlough more than 150 employees, many of whom lost their primary source of income and health care plans. 

Since last Tuesday, employees have come back for training and the hotel has begun to accept reservations for the first time since its March closure. The reopening signals a partial resolution to a monthslong effort by hotel employee union UNITE HERE Local 217 to pressure the Omni to reopen. A limited number of staff have returned to work, though the majority remains unemployed.

“Unemployment doesn’t last that long and it’s going to run out,” furloughed employee Brenda McPherson told the News. “And I don’t think they [the Omni] were fair with us at all.”

The Omni did not respond to the News’ requests for comment in time for the publication of this piece. 

McPherson worked at the Omni for 25 years as a banquet server before the pandemic hit. McPherson has collected unemployment since she was first furloughed in March. Now, McPherson is worried that her unemployment benefits will cease before she is able to return to work. She has called on Omni management to be more “transparent” about the reopening and rehiring process.

Since the March furloughs, the Omni has offered employees like McPherson access to temporary job databases and accessible community funds through its COVID-19 resource center.

Local 217 has also stepped in to help. It has established a COVID-19 hardship fund for all union hospitality workers. The fund allocates money to assist in paying for living necessities like food and rent as well as the cost of family health insurance.

Yet the 100-plus furloughed employees have still felt the loss of employment.

The hotel originally planned to reopen in July, union organizer Isadora Milanez told the News. However, the July reopening never came. Instead, the Omni kept its doors closed, citing concerns over the national state of public health.

“We were getting ready to call people back [to work],” Milanez said of initial conversations between the hotel and the union. But as the summer months passed, the Omni’s plan for reopening remained unclear. In response, Local 217 sprang into action.

In response to the extended closure, 60 union affiliates and former Omni employees protested across the Omni on Temple Street on Aug. 31, as first reported by the New Haven Independent. Milanez helped organize the rally; McPherson joined her fellow former coworkers in the crowd. Milanez called for the right to return to work and improved safety guidelines in light of COVID-19. These demands included regular disinfection of workspaces, COVID-19 paid leave and health care with no delay upon return to work.

Ward Alder 1 Eli Sabin ’22, who attended the August protest, said the former employees’ protests were a manifestation of the financial duress the pandemic has placed on the city’s service industry employees.

“The situation at the Omni just reflects a really challenging [set] of circumstances that the city and especially the hospitality industry faces right now,” Sabin told the News on Tuesday. “The folks who work at the Omni don’t make too much money and a lot of them are immigrants who need support from the union and all of us in New Haven.”

Last week, after prolonged discussions, hotel management and union leaders reached an agreement on the employee rehiring process and safety guidelines for reopening. The hotel has since reopened for reservations, yet employees have only returned slowly.

The hotel began to rehire its former employees on the basis of seniority. According to Milanez, the hotel prioritized its cleaning staff and bellmen, as well as employees from its front desk and engineering team. But for the many employees who worked as a part of food services and banquets, like McPherson, the call to come back to work never came. 

The hotel has remained at low occupancy and Milanez told the News that the current level of business does not allow for “even a quarter of the regular workforce.” The low business led hotel management to issue 170 “warn notices” to Omni staff on Sept. 11. The notices furloughed employees for six more months.

With the Omni reopened, Milanez has called upon Yale to “support union labor” by bringing business to the hotel. She hopes that bringing socially distanced events to the Omni would allow employees, like McPherson, to come back to work.

Yale is historically tied to the Omni and the current union-employer contract. In 1998, Yale officials and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. stepped in and took an active role in negotiating a contract between the hotel and the union. The University, its students groups and many affiliate conferences have used the Omni to host large banquet events in years past.

The Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale is located at 155 Temple St.

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu

Correction, Sept. 24: A previous version of this post quoted Sabin as saying that “the situation at the Omni just reflects a really changing [set] of circumstances,” when Sabin actually said that the situation presented a “really challenging [set] of circumstances.”