The hotel industry is pushing hard against an ordinance sitting in the Chicago City Council that would force hotel owners to rehire all employees that had been laid off during the pandemic before offering jobs to new hires.
The so-called Hotel Worker Right to Return Ordinance hasn’t been called for a hearing since it was introduced in November by Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward and Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward.
But the lobbying arm of the industry wants to make clear their opposition to what they fear is an attempt by the city council to “punish” an industry that has provided a lot of tax revenue and job opportunities, particularly for women of color.
“Hotels are struggling to survive right now and avoid foreclosure, which is why we’re so frustrated that the city council is even considering making things worse for and more difficult for hotels,” Michael Jacobson, President and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, told WBEZ. “We’re actually being punished for how much opportunity we provide women of color.”
Before the pandemic, the hospitality industry had benefited from the city’s growing status as an international tourist destination. The city had projected the 4.5% tax on hotel stays would generate $128.5 million in 2020. That number has been revised to $60 million for 2021. At the peak of the pandemic, the national unemployment rate among hospitality workers was around 38%, while the Chicagoland area saw a 32% drop in employment in 2020 compared to the year before.
Under the proposal, hotel managers would have to maintain a list of laid off workers, their position, and the number of years they worked at the hotel. As the hotel begins to grow staffing levels back to pre-pandemic levels, their hiring department would have to give those workers hiring preference. This would come in the form of a certified letter announcing the new position. The laid off workers would then get 10 days to accept or reject the position.
“And it sounds good in theory,” Jaconson said, “[but] it’s actually counterproductive to what the union’s trying to accomplish, it would actually delay putting people back to work.” Jacobson argues that this means a housekeeper would have to be notified if a cook position was open if the housekeeper had more seniority than the cook.
But Karen Kent, President of Unite Here Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers’ union, said she doesn’t know “where that particular scenario comes from,” adding that the ordinance is about job security. “This ordinance will require that as the guests come back, workers will come back to their job,” she said.
“We’re talking about doing the right thing for people. This is a nightmare that people are living through right now,” Kent said. “People are on the verge of losing their homes, of not having food on the table, and, you know, losing health care. And this has been terrible for everybody.”
The legislation has recently gained an influential backer: City Clerk Anna Valencia, who is also running for the soon to be vacant Secretary of State position in 2022. Last week Valencia was endorsed by Unite Here Local 1.
“I strongly support this effort and I am focused on continuing to have the necessary conversations to help protect our city’s working families,” Valencia said in a written statement to WBEZ. “We need to ensure that our hotel workers, most of whom are women, immigrants, and people of color, are protected and prioritized.”
But Jacobson said hotel owners are struggling just as much as restaurants and bars and other small businesses, and that there is a “common misperception” about the industry.
“People think that just because they have a Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton brand on their building, that they’re owned by those major companies,” he said.
Ald. Raymond Lopez told WBEZ he doesn’t know when the ordinance will go for a vote. It’s sitting in the Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, chaired by Ald. Sue Sadlowski-Garza, 10th Ward. She’s the first Chicago Teachers Union member on the city council and has a strong track record of supporting union workers.
Lopez said he’s gathering more sponsors and is open to making changes to the language. He said he thinks that’s more productive than holding a subject matter hearing.
“You know, we’ve had 57,000 subject matter hearings in the last five months alone,” he joked, purposefully exaggerating to make a point. “More important than a subject matter hearing I want to be able to create legislation that works for everyone, particularly the workers.”
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow @claudiamorell