Berkeley Marina hotel workers seek union contract
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a Berkeley Marina story series written by graduate journalism students at UC Berkeley in partnership with Berkeleyside.
As the hospitality industry shows signs of a post-pandemic return, local hotel workers are fighting for higher wages and affordable health care and increased workloads.
Hospitality workers, including housekeepers, janitors, cooks, waiters and maintenance engineers, at DoubleTree by Hilton in the Berkeley Marina have been working without a union contract since 2018 and by the end of October, many between them joined a nationwide demonstration to draw attention to their plight.
The rise in protests comes at a time when the hospitality industry, which has suffered a severe recession as COVID-19 rages, is showing signs of recovery. The occupancy rate of American hotels currently stands at 59.8%, compared to less than 40% at the start of the year, according to an STR report, a hotel analysis company.
As the City of Berkeley struggles with ambitious plans to revitalize the Berkeley Marina, the viability of DoubleTree, the only hotel in the marina, is important to its success. Hotel rental payments represent 21% of the Marina Fund’s income.
Last year, DoubleTree’s occupancy rate increased from 90% to 30%, according to the city of Berkeley. To make matters worse, it faces competition with the arrival of a Residence Inn downtown, a Marriott operation that has already struck a deal with UC Berkeley for alumni preferences and is slated to open in December.
DoubleTree workers are asking for a contract comparable to other local hotel workers, according to Ted Waechter, spokesperson and organizer of Unite Here.
Waechter said many DoubleTree workers “still earn minimum wage, which is roughly $ 16 an hour. Meanwhile, in many other hotels we represent, workers have already signed the contract; other workers doing the same work in nearby hotels are already earning an additional $ 4 to $ 5 per hour. “
DoubleTree management declined to comment beyond confirmation that it is currently negotiating a new contract with Unite Here.
The union says DoubleTree has proposed to increase the share of health care costs borne by new workers. Instead of having DoubleTree pay their insurance premiums, newly hired workers would have to pay a percentage of their premiums for the first five years.
“The standard we have earned for virtually every hotel employee is that after you have passed your probationary period as a new hire, you get good, affordable health care for your family,” Waechter said. “And there are only very small co-payers. Meanwhile, unionized hotel workers at virtually every other hotel in East Bay are not having to pay out of pocket in terms of health care premiums at all. ”
Workers are also looking to restore full housekeeping services, which many hotels have cut to reduce labor costs during the pandemic.
“The hospitality industry wants to get back to full occupancy without ever bringing back the entire workforce, but we are fighting to stop them,” said Yolanda Chen, housekeeper at Hilton Union Square in San Francisco, in a union press release.
Unite Here, the union that launched the nationwide protest on October 28, represents 300,000 workers across Canada and the United States, in hotels, games, restaurants, manufacturing and other industries.
Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said the protests are what he calls the “great rebellion.”
“It’s a time when so many workers walk away from the hospitality industry in general and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ she said.
The shrinking workforce is the biggest pressure the hospitality industry faces, said Zach Demuth, senior director of hotel research at JLL, the global commercial real estate services company.
“Since the onset of COVID, nearly 2 million workers have left the industry,” he said. “As demand continues to pick up and occupancy rates increase, this is negatively impacting the customer experience and putting additional pressure on owners and operators. There are many initiatives being rolled out to help correct this trend, as a strong workforce is vital to the long-term health of the industry. “
The local hotel industry is slowly showing signs of recovery after suffering deeply from COVID-19 last year. According to a December 2020 report from the Berkeley Office of Economic Development, 75% of Berkeley hotel rooms have been temporarily closed from March to October 2020. The city’s hotel tax revenue fell 70%, a loss of $ 4.7 million year-over-year from March to November 2020.
Aria Yang is a UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism student covering economic development.