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Hawaii hotels battling for jobs

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The entrance to the Sheraton Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki remained barricaded on Monday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The entrance to the Sheraton Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki remained barricaded on Monday.

Hawaii’s organized hotel union workers generally support an industry push to require guests to wear face coverings in public spaces and practice social distancing.

But they don’t support some of the other details championed by the American Hotel & Lodging Association last week as part of its “Stay Safe” guest checklist, which union workers say ultimately could cost jobs.

In addition to wearing face coverings and social distancing, AHLA’s list recommends that guests choose contactless options when available for reservations, check-ins, room service and payments. It also suggests that guests ask for daily in-room cleaning only when necessary and have room-service orders delivered outside of their room. Guests are advised not to travel if they are ill or have had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

AHLA also joined with the Hotel Council of San Francisco and the California Hotel and Lodging Association to file a lawsuit Monday against the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ “Healthy Buildings” ordinance.

The ordinance, signed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed on July 17, obligates most of the city’s hotels and office buildings to follow improved cleaning standards and provide employee training on paid time, and makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against covered employees who refuse work under conditions they believe may be unsafe.

In a news release issued Monday, the hotel trade groups billed their suit as a way to protect workers and guests from an “unsafe cleaning ordinance.”

But their stance has been viewed skeptically by organized labor, including members of Hawaii’s Unite Here Local 5 and ILWU Local 142.

Eric Gill, Unite Here Local 5 financial secretary/ treasurer, said workers are calling on Hawaii lawmakers to do the “right thing” and have highlighted concerns through car caravans and other actions in Waikiki and other tourism districts where they work statewide.

Gill said most of the union’s 8,000 hotel workers and 800 airport workers have not been called back to work, and fewer will be able to return if hotels are allowed to eliminate positions under the guise of public safety.

Donna Domingo, ILWU Local 142 president, said in a statement that “we also echo similar concerns that the AHLA’s safety checklist could lead to job loss and cause further economic strain on many working families.”

“While we appreciate (AHLA’s) efforts to adopt proposals that could help limit the spread of COVID-19, we believe they can be done better and more effectively without harming employment,” Domingo said.

Domingo said the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decision goes in a better direction as it “implements strong requirements for safe and healthy hotels while utilizing a workforce trained and educated to help slow the spread of illness and keep guests and the public healthy.”

“Properly trained and educated workers remain employed and the hotels are properly cleaned and disinfected, creating a safe and healthy environment,” she said.

Local 5 was disappointed when the state Legislature’s July session ended without lawmakers requiring employers to share their safety protocols and be accountable for adhering to them. The union also wanted workers’ compensation laws amended to address COVID-19.

Cade Watanabe, Local 5’s political director, said that the union now will pursue county legislation or other means of addressing basic concerns, including job preservation.

Many Hawaii hotels and resorts have issued mass layoff notices as the pandemic has unfolded. The downturn in tourism is thought to be responsible for a significant portion of Hawaii’s unemployment insurance claims, which last week hit 254,995.

Since March 1 the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has paid out more than $2 billion, and it is still receiving nearly 8,000 new claims per week.

Affron Herring, a food prep worker at Hilton Hawaiian Village, said last week the union wants to ensure that every worker who has been laid off or furloughed comes back to a job with their seniority in place.

“We don’t want to get there and find out there’s 200 jobs that have been cut due to coronavirus,” Herring said during a July 15 news conference prior to a car caravan action in Waikiki. “We want to guarantee that our jobs are there when it’s time to go back.”

Elpedia Estrada, a Sheraton Maui housekeeper, said some hotel companies already have told union members that they plan to reduce housekeeping services.

“How can we take care of our family and my guests if they are eliminating this service?” Estrada said.

Watanabe said the union was fighting to preserve jobs in areas like housekeeping and food and beverage even before COVID-19.

“They’ve been trying to reduce costs and jobs from the workforce from the beginning,” Watanabe said. “Now is not the time. We need people to go back to work and to go back to work safely.”

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association, said Hawaii’s hotels have developed safety protocols that have been vetted by the four county mayors and the state Department of Health. Hannemann said Hawaii’s hotels are ready to reopen for tourism and that Local 5 may choose to bargain if its members want more.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs in the San Francisco lawsuit said the ordinance “serves the selfish interests of a union with no consideration of the employee harm it mandates,” and does serious financial harm. They also said the ordinance “endangers the health of hotel employees by mandating increased contacts with guests.”

The trade groups estimate that San Francisco’s ordinance will cost San Francisco’s 215 hotels an average of $220,000 each, adding more than $47 million in annual industry costs, extending hotel closures and extending joblessness.

“This harmful ordinance left us no option but to defend the safety and well-being of our 25,000 San Francisco employees and our valued hotel guests,” Kevin Carroll, president and CEO of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, said in a statement.

Carroll added, “This dangerous ordinance contradicts the advice of public health experts and would cause enormous economic hardship to our already struggling hotels trying to keep employees on the payroll.”

Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the AHLA, said in a statement that “Safe Stay,” which was designed in accordance with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, meets the needs of the current public health crisis.

“Not only is this ordinance unnecessary and dangerous, but it would force hotels to remain closed, potentially for good, and lay off thousands of our dedicated workers,” Rogers said.

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