An organizer with Unite Here Local 1 rallies for the “Right to Return to Work” ordinance; Right: The Park Hyatt hotel [Facebook]

Thousands of laid-off Chicago hotel workers are redoubling their push for an ordinance they say would ensure that companies do right by employees who lost their livelihoods last year after decades of loyal service.

But hotel owners are pushing back hard on the proposed “Hotel Worker Right to Return to Work” ordinance (O2020-5777), saying its requirements would create a “logistical nightmare” that slows down hiring, potentially hurting the same workers the union is trying to protect.

Ald. Ed Burke (14) and Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) introduced the ordinance in November with heavy backing from Unite Here Local 1, a union representing more than 7,000 Chicago hotel workers and 8,000 other hospitality-industry employees. Ald. David Moore (17), Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30), Ald. Jim Gardiner (45) and Ald. Felix Cardona (31) have since signed on as cosponsors.

The same group of aldermen is also backing a companion ordinance (O2020-5778) that would require daily cleaning of hotel rooms and other “public accommodations,” expanding work for housekeepers.

The six-page “Right to Return to Work” measure would require city hotel operators to offer “all job positions that become available” after its passage to employees who have been laid off since Jan. 31, 2020. The offers must be sent by email, text message and by physical mail, and the employer must give the laid-off employee 10 days to make their decision after the mail arrives before they can move on to a new candidate.

If hoteliers choose not to rehire any laid-off worker because of a “lack of qualification,” they must give “written notice” within 30 days of their decision “identifying all reasons for such decision.”

“Thousands of hotel workers have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and we want to make sure they have a place to go back to,” said Karen Kent, president of Unite Here Local 1. “If there’s no assurance of people being able to go back to their jobs once the city reopens, then we’re leaving all these folks under tremendous financial and emotional stress.”

City Council Committee on Workforce Development chair Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10) has not called a hearing on the ordinances in the more than two months since they were introduced. But now that the city’s vaccination campaign is underway and hospitality businesses hope for some tourism to return this summer, the union has launched an advocacy blitz, in part by encouraging members to call their aldermen.

“I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t see the importance of making sure that these workers are part of the recovery,” Kent said, noting that immigrants and women of color comprise the bulk of the hotel industry’s labor force.

Maria Ruiz, a banquet server who was laid off from the downtown Swissotel last year, told The Daily Line that a legal assurance putting her near the top of the hotel’s rehire list “means everything to me.”

“It means peace of mind,” she said. “It means health insurance, being able to take care of my son, not losing my house. It isn’t easy to start over again at my age.”

Ruiz, 51, worked at Swissotel for 23 years until last March, when she was placed on furlough, she said. The hotel cut her loose in October, and she’s been living on savings ever since.

“Those workers have been there years and years, and we didn’t do anything wrong,” Ruiz said. “Everyone must be brought back.”

Hotel industry pushes back

Both proposed ordinances have run into heavy opposition from hotel operators, many of whom have already been forced to shutter since the COVID-19 pandemic dried up most tourism. Chicago hotel occupancy rates have been hovering in the mid-teens since last spring, and business “really hasn’t gotten any better” as state health officials have loosened restrictions in recent weeks, according to Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.

Operators will naturally turn first to their most loyal and experienced workers once demand picks back up, though most don’t expect business to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023, Jacobson said. But the “Right to Return to Work” ordinance would gum up the process by mandating waiting periods and extra boxes to check, he said.

“The logistical nightmare this ordinance creates is counterproductive to what the union is trying to accomplish,” Jacobson said. “As soon as demand rebounds, this is going to slow us down.”

Specifically, he said being forced to mail letters and then wait 10 days for a response before offering an open position to the next-most qualified candidate would turn an otherwise quick staff-up into a slog that would take “weeks, if not months.”

“We agree with Unite Here that we want to get as many people back to work as quickly as possible,” Jacobson said. “Is this the way we jump-start people getting back to work? It’s not.”

Jacobson also called the separate proposed ordinance to mandate daily room cleaning “absolutely absurd,” noting that it contradicts  city public health guidance that urges hotels to limit housekeeping services to minimize workers’ time in guest rooms.

Instead, he said the hotel industry is lobbying state and city health officials to move up hotel workers in the vaccine queue, noting that housekeepers “can’t work from home.” Hoteliers also want the state’s health department to take a “stepping-stone approach” to further loosening capacity limits in large conference rooms or ballrooms that can hold socially-distanced groups of 75 or 100 people.

Union leaders have not helped the industry advocate for either cause, Jacobson said.

Attempts at compromise

Neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor Garza, who did not respond to a request for comment, has publicly tipped their hand on whether they support either ordinance.

“Conversations on this ordinance are ongoing,” a spokesperson for Lightfoot wrote in a statement Wednesday.

“The Mayor’s Office is working with members of City Council and other stakeholders to develop a workable framework that will help hotels and other industries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner that prioritizes a rapid and safe return to work—and a good paycheck—for thousands of Chicago’s workers,” the statement said.

Lopez, who sponsored both ordinances, said he has made “every overture to include” Lightfoot’s administration, whose officials have considered the legislation “in fits and starts.”

In the meantime, Lopez said he is meeting with union leaders and hotel industry representatives, as well as Garza, to forge a potential compromise.

“I understand where they’re both coming from, and I’m hopeful that we can find a happy medium so that workers aren’t left behind and hotels are able to hire quickly and in a way that is safe for everyone,” Lopez said. “I believe we can accomplish that.”

However, the hotel industry is unlikely to get on board with a softer version of the “Right to Return to Work” ordinance, Jacobson said.

“The whole ordinance is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “There’s no version of the ordinance as written that we can get behind.”