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Two Baltimore Bills Aim To Put Laid-Off Hospitality Workers Back On The Job As Hotels Reopen

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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  A new bill before the Baltimore City Council aims to require hospitality businesses to bring back the same employees who were laid off at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic as they reopen; hospitality employment is down 50% from last year, compared to 12% for all jobs across the city.

The council’s Labor Committee recessed without voting on the bill after city lawyers said they needed more time to consider a set of amendments during a hearing Thursday. The committee did pass another bill that would require new owners of businesses to retain the same employees for at least 90 days.

Stacey Whyte, a housekeeper at the Hilton Baltimore, told the committee that she and her coworkers have been out of work for almost eight months now. To be fired amid the trauma of the pandemic would be cruel, she said.

“We want our jobs back,” Whyte, who has worked at the hotel since 2009, testified. “We are loyal, dedicated workers. We should not have to worry about whether we are going to lose our jobs over a pandemic that we had nothing to do with.”

Whyte was one of dozens of laid-off UNITE HERE Local 7 workers who rallied outside City Hall in support of the bills on Tuesday. 

Nearly 1,600 members of the union, which represents workers at the Hilton Baltimore, Hyatt Regency, Marriott Waterfront, Radisson, Crowne Plaza, Camden Yards, Baltimore Convention Center, Royal Farms Arena and the Pimlico Race Course, have lost their jobs since the spring.

According to union data, the Hilton Baltimore saw the most layoffs. Of the laid-off workers there and at the Marriott Waterfront, 69% are Black, 7% are Asian and 6% are Latino. Nearly 60% are women.

Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett of Southwest Baltimore, who introduced the two bills, said at the rally that the legislation aims to further racial economic justice.  

“In the city of Baltimore, we haven't done enough to protect our communities of color and make sure that they have everything that they need to thrive,” he said. “As their workplaces reopen, they should absolutely have the right to return to their jobs, instead of being thrown out of work due to no fault of their own.”  

The COVID-19 Laid-Off Employees Right of Recall Bill would require hospitality businesses to bring back workers to their jobs in order of their seniority. The COVID-19 Employee Retention Bill would require hotels or event centers under new ownership to retain current staff for a minimum of a 90-day transition period.

The bills have received fierce opposition from the hotel and hospitality industry, including Frank Boston, an attorney with the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, who said the bills are “impossible to comply with.” 

“We wish we could bring back people, but right now you have to bring back people who can do any job,” Boston said. “You have managers doing jobs that are pay scales one, two, three, four steps below just to try to keep the doors open.” 

UNITE HERE organizer Tracy Lingo said the city has already cut hotels too much slack through millions of dollars in subsidies: the Marriott Waterfront pays Baltimore only a dollar a year in property taxes. 

“The city made those tax breaks to encourage job development and job growth,” she said. “A lot of our members have spent their whole lives training for these careers, investing in time to be ambassadors for our city.”

Industry lobbyists cited an analysis from the city Law Department, which said the adoption of the Recall Ordinance would violate the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

Similar measures have passed successfully in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, testified in support of the bill on Thursday.

During the hearing, Hilary Ruley of the Law Department said the agency stands by the original analysis.

The Labor Committee will meet on Monday morning to vote on the amendments, which include a sunset clause. Tracy Lingo, a UNITE HERE organizer, said she is optimistic about the upcoming vote.

 

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