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Honolulu City Council bill mandates hotel employee callback rules

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Oahu hotel operators hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic are crying foul at a Honolulu City Council bill that would dictate to the managers which employees could be brought back to work as their facilities slowly reopen.

But the leadership and members of Unite Here Local 5, the hospitality workers union pushing the measure, say Bill 80 would ensure their laid-off workers return safely and in a fair manner that prioritizes seniority.

The measure gets its first airing before the Council Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee at 1 p.m. today.

The bill would require the hotels to recall a set amount of employees, calculated by the occupancy that the hotel will accommodate, with priority given to those with the most seniority in their respective job positions.

It would also require that the hotels “clean and sanitize every occupied guest room every day” and employ the number of housekeeping workers necessary to ensure that it is done.

Kekoa McClellan, spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association Hawaii chapter, said the bill would make it more difficult for hotels to reopen at all.

“This whole recall language places an undue burden on the hospitality industry and will force the hotels to close and lay off thousands of employees,” McClellan said. “This action will hurt the very employees it is intended to help. A hotel cannot simply reopen based on some calculation of employee counts,” he said.

“If at 100% occupancy, I need six restaurants open to meet the need and demand of my guests. At 20% occupancy I’m not going to need all six restaurants open, and I wouldn’t have all six restaurants open,” McClellan said. “But as written, Bill 80 would force me to bring back 20% of my employees at all six restaurants.”

That also would apply to other areas of a hotel property, he said. A hotel wouldn’t open the same number of pools if the number of guests doesn’t warrant it, he said.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, agreed.

“This bill will handcuff a hotel property’s rehiring practices by tying it directly to occupancy, which will only discourage hotel management from reopening their doors until demand has increased and stabilized,” Hannemann said. “The indirect effect of Bill 80 would ultimately be that the local residents who comprise our tourism industry workforce will be kept off their jobs longer than necessary, for no discernibly good reason.”

Meanwhile, the requirement that each occupied room be cleaned and sanitized appears to contradict Centers for Disease Control safety guidelines and exposes employees to unnecessary risks, McClellan said.

Hannemann said such a requirement “flies in the face of both long-standing hotel protocols and current industry recommendations” and endangers the safety of hotel guests, front-line employees and their families.

The two groups also raised concerns about the legality of the bill.

“This proposed measure sets a dangerous precedent of local government overstepping its jurisdiction and meddling in the internal workings of private business entities,” Hannemann said. “While this bill is aimed squarely at hotels, the next step could be airlines, then attractions, small businesses, restaurants or any other number of business sectors.”

Local 5 Political Director Cade Watanabe said the bill is “pretty straightforward” and seeks only to ensure that all hotels recall their employees fairly when they return, not just those employees they want. Cities across the country from Baltimore to Los Angeles have enacted similar legislation, he said.

“We cannot allow employers and the industry to use this pandemic as an excuse to permanently reduce our local workforce,” Watanabe said.

The hotels with which the union have agreements typically have callback provisions, but it’s possible that some will choose to take the position that the pandemic presents a situation so extraordinary it cannot follow its provisions, he acknowledged.

Additionally, the bill would offer some protection for hotel workers who aren’t represented, he said, estimating that the 7,000 to 7,500 unionized hotel workers on Oahu represents about half of those in the industry as a whole. At least one chain whose employees are not unionized is reopening and is forcing all its previously laid-off workers to reapply, he said.

Watanabe was adamant that McClellan’s hypothetical example that all hotel restaurants would have to open is wrong under the 20% scenario, and he insisted emphatically that nothing in the bill would force hotels to open areas not of their choosing.

Those opposed to the bill are “bringing up these things to scare our City Council into thinking that Bill 80 is requiring this whole slew of things when in fact all it does is require businesses to make a commitment to workers that the jobs they once had will be there when they return,” he said.

More than 1,500 Local 5 members already have sent testimony supporting the bill to the Council, Watanabe said.

Councilman Tommy Waters, who introduced the bill on behalf of Local 5, said he appreciates and understands both sides of the issue, as well as the concerns raised about the measure.

“A lot of the hotel workers have given their lives to the hotels, and I have to say that after speaking to the hotel management, they treat their employees like family … and they want to bring them back.”

He added, “I understand that there are problems with the bill, but … I’m encouraging both sides to try to sit down and work out their differences.”

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