Yale Daily News

Barbara Mabery longs for her former job as a housekeeping worker at the Omni New Haven Hotel. Mabery was one of the first employees hired by the downtown hotel about 22 years ago. On March 31, as the pandemic damaged the local economy, the Omni laid her off in a cut of 170 employees.

Mabery said she lost her health insurance, among other things. Now, almost at the age of 60, Mabery has said she worries about how she’ll find another job. 

In an effort to aid the city’s laid-off hotel workers, Mayor Justin Elicker submitted an ordinance to the Board of Alders on Nov. 2, which seeks to ensure that former employees of New Haven’s hospitality industry have the “right-to-return” to their old jobs. If approved by the Board, the “Worker Right to Recall” ordinance will require that employers prioritize their former employees who were laid off in the pandemic-induced economic downturn to receive the first offers for new jobs when hotels rehire. The ordinance would only apply to hotels with 50 or more rooms. In his letter to the Board, Elicker wrote that prioritizing ex-employees for their pre-pandemic positions will better guarantee the economic stability of many New Haven residents. 

“A number of hotel workers reached out to me who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 and expressed a strong interest in getting their jobs back,” Elicker told the News on Monday. “The stories of individuals struggling in this very difficult time were ones that made it clear that we need to support them getting back to work once hotels begin to hire again.”

Elicker added that he has communicated with both UNITE HERE Local 217 — which represents many of the city’s hospitality workers — and individual recently laid-off hotel employees. He also shared that other cities, such as Oakland and Los Angeles, have already implemented similar ordinances. At the height of the economic shutdown, 39.3% of leisure and hospitality workers nationally were unemployed.

The ordinance

The legislation would give priority to laid-off employees for the same post they held prior to being laid off. If that position was unavailable, the laid-off employee would qualify for a “similar” position to the one they previously held, as long as the laid-off individual “qualified for the position with the same training that would be provided to a new employee hired into that position.” 

If two or more individuals are qualified for a certain position, the worker with the “longest length of service” would be prioritized.

The Worker Right to Recall ordinance would still be upheld even if the ownership of the hotel has changed but continues similar operations as those before Jan. 31, 2020. Any disputes over the Worker Right to Recall would be under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court.

Ginny Kozlowski, the chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven — an organization that focuses on business retention, expansion, and attraction — said that she spoke to a number of hotel owners in the Elm City who said that their rehiring practices already prioritize laid-off employees, in order of seniority, as the proposal would require. The hotel owners, according to Kozlowski, are questioning why the already common practice has to be mandated and are looking for more details on the ordinance.

Struggling workers

In a press conference held by UNITE HERE Local 217 on Tuesday evening, hotel workers stressed the importance of passing this ordinance.

Angelique Meas, a front desk worker at the Omni in Providence, said that the mental burden of getting laid off weighed on her. She has needed to see a therapist twice a week and often does not know where her next meal is going to come from.

“We feel sick to our stomach not knowing when we’re going to get our jobs back,” Meas said. “I’m being raw and I’m being real and that’s how you need to be during this pandemic because we need everyone to understand what we’re going through.” 

A report from UNITE HERE Local 21, led by local researcher Julia Salseda, showed that the hospitality industry’s unemployment crisis disproportionately affects Black and Latinx communities that collectively make up 29.9% of the national workforce.

Struggling businesses

Facing a “slower” winter season, Kozlowski expressed concern for the state of hotel businesses in New Haven and their ability to hire additional staff. Kozlowski said that there was an uptick in hotel activity in August because of northeastern visitors engaging in outdoor activities in New Haven as a “weekend getaway.” As the weather turns cooler, she expects the popularity of these outdoor activities to decrease.

Kozlowski also said that fewer passengers are using the Metro-North line, Amtrak system and shuttle buses — forms of transportation that often brought people to Connecticut. This year, the lack of tourist influx has negatively impacted hotel occupancy.

“If all those people aren’t coming out to do [activities] whether it’s to go to the Yale museum or come and somehow be connected with the university, or any of the other activities here in New Haven or in the region, it hurts businesses, and it’s not just hotels,” Kozlowski said. 

Advancements in telecommunications — made more widespread by the pandemic — may last even after the pandemic ends, possibly leading businesses not to return to trade shows or large conventions, according to Kozlowski. This would, Kozlowski added, affect the success of the hospitality industry in New Haven and, in turn, affect the return of jobs.

Kozlowski said she would be happy to bring hoteliers, hotel workers and the city government together to ease concerns.

“Clearly if you were laid off back in March and you’re now getting to the end of your eligibility of unemployment because your benefits are about to expire, your anxiety level will be going up,” Kozlowski said. “I can understand why people are concerned, but putting a different light on where hotels are at moment is important to the discussion.”

In the press conference, New Haven Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers said that this ordinance will be “treated like any other ordinance.” The Board will conduct public hearings, hear testimonies from the workers and other members of the public. 

Elicker, however, told the News that he is optimistic that the ordinance will pass because the alders’ first priority is helping those in need. 

The next Board of Alders meeting will be on Nov. 16.

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu