Chicago ordinance bringing laid-off hotel workers back to work stalls
Hotel workers were among the first to be laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic and now that tourists are coming back in Chicago they want to be the first to be recalled.

CHICAGO—Marie Lourdie Pierre-Jacques, a naturalized Haitian immigrant who was a banquet server in Swissotel in Chicago’s Loop, gave her life to her job for 18 years.

She almost had her first baby at the hotel. After only six weeks of leave, she returned to work. After that, her first son called her sister “Mommy” and “It broke my heart,” she said.

“When I was pregnant, people said to me ‘You’re going to have that baby right here in the hotel’ because I worked right up to my due date,” she told the Chicago City Council earlier this year, according to a transcript of her testimony posted by the Chicago Crusader, a Black community newspaper.

“And after giving birth to my son, I was back at work six weeks later. I did this because I thought if I worked hard and gave my all, the job would respect me back. I spent more time with my coworkers at the hotel than with my own family. I thought it would be worth it to be able to support my children and provide health insurance.

“When I found out I was being fired, I couldn’t believe it. It is still difficult to talk about. After all these years, all the sacrifice. How could they do something like that?

“The hotel told us we were a family. What kind of people treat their family this way?”

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the hotel’s bosses didn’t reciprocate such loyal service. They gave her the back of their hand. They still do.

The hotel laid her off, as hotels citywide did to 16,000 workers, members of Unite Here Local 1, when the plague shut down that industry, and so many others from coast to coast.

Swissotel’s closing left Pierre-Jacques with two asthmatic sons, blood clots of her own, a troubled marriage, and no health insurance. But at least she has Local 1 in her corner.

The union has set up and still runs, a fund, on its website, seeking aid for the fired workers.

And now Local 1 proposed a city ordinance, and got eight council members to sponsor it, mandating that as hotels, bars and restaurants reopen in the Windy City, they take their former workers back, by seniority. That would help veteran workers like Pierre-Jacques.

“Moms who were fired from their hotel jobs during the pandemic don’t want flowers this #MothersDay, they want the City of Chicago to pass the Hotel Worker Right to Return to Work Ordinance!” Local 1 tweeted then.

“When we talk about an equitable recovery, women—specifically Black and brown women—MUST be at the center of our efforts,” Women Employed added in its supportive tweet. “The Chicago Hotel Worker Right To Return To Work ordinance can help address the disproportionate way working women have been impacted by the pandemic. “

So far, so good, except that after the council’s Workforce Development Committee hearing early this year on the measure, where Pierre-Jacques testified, it’s apparently marooned. A check of the council’s website shows no action since.

Meanwhile, the hotel industry is lobbying for the city to turn over $75 million of the American Recovery Act funds Chicago got from the $1.9 trillion federal law earlier this year, to help hostelries get back on their financial feet.  And the state lobby for the industry opposes rehiring the workers by seniority. It wants to let hotel HR managers pick and choose,

That leaves Pierre-Jacques bereft, and it leaves Local 1 lobbying to get the Right To Return To Work bill, ordinance 2020-5078, out of the committee, by rounding up more co-sponsors. A supportive Chicago Sun-Times editorial noted California, Boston and Baltimore have similar right-to-return laws.

Local 1 President Karen Kent told WBBM Newsradio early this year that Pierre-Jacques and her colleagues otherwise face “a very uncertain future.” Restoring that future by restoring them to their jobs would be a great way to show the city values the workers, she said.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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