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Coronavirus has ravaged hotel employment levels, but the leader of one of the hospitality industry’s largest unions still sees opportunity for the labor movement in the ongoing crisis.
Roughly 98 percent of Unite Here’s 300,000 members across the U.S. and Canada have lost their jobs due to coronavirus-related shutdowns and the downturn in travel. Unite Here President D. Taylor is leading the labor union through its most difficult time and working to ensure members maintain healthcare benefits and unemployment insurance while also taking part in discussions on how states can reopen their economies.
“I remember 9/11 quite well and the hurricanes, Great Recession, and mass shootings in Vegas and Orlando. I’ve never dealt with a workforce that wants to go back to work but is also very scared to go back to work because there’s no real separation here between workers and customers,” Taylor said. “On both sides, there’s a fair amount of peril.”
In an interview with Skift this week, Taylor outlined baseline expectations the labor union wants from municipalities and private companies before he feels comfortable sending members back to their jobs. While there is plenty of work ahead for the union, Taylor also feels confident the crisis – which many analysts expect will result in a pivot from human workforce to technological replacements in the recovery – can be an advantage for the labor movement.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Coronavirus put a catastrophic 98 percent of Unite Here’s membership out of work. What options do members have to financially get through something that is lasting significantly longer than what anyone was expecting back in March?
Taylor: Clearly people want to go back to work if for nothing else because the unemployment system in this country is a disgrace. Take Florida, for example: 1.5 million people had applied a few weeks ago, and only 400,000 have received benefits [Note: as of Tuesday, 1.9 million unemployment claims have been submitted, and nearly 694,000 people received benefits, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity dashboard.]. You would either say that is the height of incompetency, or it’s deliberate. Six or seven weeks without income, here’s what occurs: You either ravage your savings, or you go hungry.
For many people in our industry, if you have, frankly, the union, almost everyone had healthcare benefits extended, but this isn’t just about our members. As you know, we had millions of people in hospitality laid off in March or April, and you generally lose your employer-based healthcare the month you get laid off. That means we have millions of people without healthcare. How in the middle of a crisis, when Congress spends $2 trillion on a relief package, can they do nothing on healthcare? It’s criminal, in our opinion. Our members are struggling because they want to get back to work, and it’s been compounded by the complete incompetency or deliberate nature or not delivering unemployment benefits.
Skift: Governments are beginning to discuss reopening timelines, even in hard hit areas like New York and Massachusetts. How involved are you in those reopening discussions?
Taylor: We have folks, depending on the area, who are on the reopening committees. The head of our Boston chapter, Carlos Aramayo, testified last week about reopening and protocols. In New York, Peter Ward is on a reopening advisory board. In California, I’m on that.
There are discussions going on. It’s been a tough road. At the same time, like everyone else, we’re cautiously optimistic. We’re very interested what scientists and health experts say and generally not too interested in what politicians say. Obviously, the more responsible politicians are actually listening to the experts and looking at staging reopening based on actual metrics. Those who don’t really care about science or people are just reopening, and we have examples of that, too.
Skift: We’re hearing a lot about how hotel operations and cleaning standards going forward are about keeping workers safe just as much as they are about keeping guests safe. What are some key changes you want to see from a workplace health and safety standpoint?
Taylor: We’re not about to have our workers enter a meatpacking plant known as a hotel or casino. We have laid out a very detailed public health guideline for reopening. We’ve submitted that in California, and we’ve submitted that to gaming control boards and gaming companies in Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Jersey.
We think everybody should be tested before they go back since 25 percent of Covid-19 patients are asymptomatic. We’d like at least a baseline of tests on coworkers and guests. Thermal checks are important. On the cleanliness standards, we think they should comply with CDC standards and have a lot more detailed cleaning on high-contact areas. We should mitigate high-contact areas. For example, people could tip by [a web-based] app. We think that the cleaning of guest rooms has to be to a standard they’ve never seen. We think there has to be an enforcement of social distancing. I could go on and on.
Skift: Are there companies or municipalities where you’re finding more success in hopefully making these points a reality when things reopen?
Taylor: We’ll see what happens in California. We’ll see what happens in New York and elsewhere. I think this will be a fight for transparency and standards to ensure there’s not another outbreak or hotspot.
We think there has to be real training and real mandated enforcement by government entities. You can’t rely on the volunteerism of a company to abide by rules. Take Boston. Say the big chains were really good on this, but say there is one that really cut corners. You have a hotspot break out in Boston. What people don’t say is that it’s just that hotel. They say it’s Boston, so that damages the entire industry. We need real enforcement of this and not just have companies voluntary comply with it. What we’ve seen over the years is you have responsible employers, but you have some irresponsible employers. In this case, irresponsible employers can wipe out all the good and gains that responsible employers develop. Hotspots identify a city and not just one hotel.
Skift: Can you elaborate on Nevada specifically? There’s been a lot reported regarding Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman calling for a quick reopening, but many of the resorts themselves have issued very detailed changes in how operations would go upon reopening.
Taylor: Wynn Resorts was the first to release [reopening guidelines]. The Venetian released something. MGM released something this week, and we’ll look at it. The problem is this: You have a situation where the elected officials are having almost a laissez-faire attitude about the protocols. It jeopardizes the Wynns and MGMs out there who are doing all the testing and new standards, but others aren’t doing that. It negates the good look others are doing because we can’t rely on volunteerism.
The public officials still haven’t gotten that through their head. We talked to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and they said it’s not exactly their jurisdiction. It’s a privileged license, so it is their jurisdiction – but they’ve taken a pass. What will give people consumer confidence is to let them feel they are going into a safe environment. It’s the same with workers.
Skift: A common theme we hear is travelers are going to want to see evidence of heightened attention to health and safety, and that might mean less interaction with staff and more reliance on technology. Does that concern you from a labor and staffing standpoint?
Taylor: With the cleaning standards, it’s quite the contrary. They’ll have to clean public areas on an hourly basis. This idea they’ll have fewer workers and expect the same amount of cleaning detail is crazy. Go into a grocery store now, there are a lot more people working now because they have more people cleaning the high-touch areas and a whole variety of things. You can multiply that for the hotels and casinos.
Skift: How do you think travelers will respond to some of these recommendations that hotels lose a lot of the people-to-people services and amenities that may have been a driving factor to book a stay in the first place before coronavirus?
Taylor: In a way, what I don’t want is these facilities to be like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle where workers are expendable. I think travelers are going to want to have confidence that the kind of standards ensure them the most secure environment. You can open all you want with low room rates, but if people don’t have confidence companies are doing everything they can to ensure a clean environment, then I think it doesn’t matter. I don’t think people want to jeopardize their own health based on a weekend for a low price compared to feeling safe wherever they are.
Skift: Hotel companies and analysts say it is going to be tough to operate a hotel in union markets with higher labor costs given the expected low occupancy rates in the near-term. Are you renegotiating contracts at all in light of the tanked travel industry?
Taylor: The operators clearly looking at reopening will talk to our various leaders, and we’ll hear what they have to say. I’m not aware of one single proposal that’s been put on the table by companies outside of some proclamation like that.
Skift: If group travel is last to return, what does that mean for Unite Here and its many members working these major events tied to conventions and convention hotels?
Taylor: The reason I’m focused on unemployment is because I think it will be a while before people get back to work. In the state of California, the maximum unemployment you can get is $450 per week. In New York, it’s $504. You know you can’t live off that. You either have an enormous number of people who lose their apartments or houses, or something’s got to give. We all know you can’t live off $450 per week in the Bay Area on a sustained period.
I’m quite worried about not just our members but all people in hospitality. I do have confidence, but it’ll take a while. The more we can have a safe environment for our workers and guests, the better off we are.
Skift: Is this crisis going to help or hurt the labor movement?
Taylor: They say unemployment is at 15 percent, and we know it’s higher than that – probably well over 20 percent. We have to find opportunity in a crisis. Look at where the labor movement grew the most, and it’s through the Great Depression and World War II. I’m not looking for a war, obviously, but what has become apparent is, unless there’s a vibrant and strong labor movement, what happens? There is no safety net. Nobody has something that’s a real safety net in this country. It’s supposed to be unemployment insurance, but nobody can access it. I think there is an enormous opportunity, and it’s not just zeroed on this crisis. It’s been building over the last two or three decades.