In late May, when hoteliers were still optimistic that the out-of-state passenger quarantine could be lifted before peak summertime travel, the Unite Here Local 5 union staged a car caravan down deserted Kalakaua Avenue. It ended with a protest at Kapiolani Park, with union members calling for assurances about workplace health protections and job security.
Still seeking such shielding from more harsh economic possibilities, the union is now pressing the City Council to support Bill 80, which aims to ensure laid-off hotel workers return safely and in a manner that prioritizes seniority.
With the state’s pre-travel testing program finally underway and more workers returning to hotel jobs, the desire to protect local jobs is both plain to see and defensible to some extent. However, while this bill offers up some reasonable steps for recalling released employees, it also dubiously calls for government overstep.
The measure, now before the Council’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, would require 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.
Another provision would require that the hotels “clean and sanitize every occupied guest room every day” and employ the number of housekeeping workers necessary to ensure that such work gets done.
Local 5 Political Director Cade Watanabe described Bill 80 as, in part, a guard against temptation to “use this pandemic as an excuse to permanently reduce our local workforce.” While the union-hotel agreements typically have callback provisions, he said, it’s possible that some hoteliers could take the position that the pandemic has delivered a situation so extraordinary that set provisions cannot hold.
Watanabe pointed out that other cities have enacted similar legislation. In the case of Los Angeles, a new ordinance, dubbed “COVID-19 Right of Recall,” requires certain employers — hoteliers and airport employers among others — to offer priority hiring for laid-off rank-and-file workers.
The call for Honolulu to follow suit is tempting in that many of the thousands of displaced workers have dedicated decades to their local jobs. They deserve better than to be abruptly let go, replaced by strict cost-cutting tactics. Any decision that considers bottom-line profits first and foremost is not good for Hawaii or its people.
Bill 80 opponents have pointed out that union agreements and workplace rules already offer degrees of protection for workers. Further, the state, which regulates employment and cleaning standards via the departments of Labor and Industrial Relations and Department of Health, has not delegated the handling of these matters to Hawaii’s counties.
Doug Chang, general manager at Waikiki’s Ritz-Carlton Residences, wrote in testimony that the daily room-cleaning proposal conflicts with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, exposing people to unnecessary risk. “We fear that by forcing more frequent interactions in the confined spaces of our hotel rooms, Bill 80 will ultimately put staff and guests at increased risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19,” Chang said.
The debate over Bill 80 is a necessary one to work toward a balance of business and labor. And it underscores that while it won’t be possible to fully reset Hawaii’s hotels to pre-coronavirus status, tourism’s reopening must stress safety. With more trans-Pacific travelers booking trips here, hotels — along with tourism industry reps, such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority — must adopt a hyper-vigilant and assertive stand that insists on protections such as physical-distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing.