USNS Mercy backed into port as it passed downtown hotels.
The USNS Mercy passes downtown hotels during the height of the pandemic. Photo by Chris Stone

Antonio Rodriguez has worked at the Terranea Resort hotel in Palos Verdes since 2009. The caterer is proud and happy to say that he was among the first employees hired when the luxury oceanfront hotel opened.

However, in January 2020, Rodriguez and hundreds of employees received the news that their working hours would be reduced due to COVID-19. By mid-March, they were laid off and by the end of April, they were told by letter that they were fired.

“They told us that we were no longer going to have medical coverage and that they were only going to pay it until the month of May,” said the worker. “In May, they sent us another letter saying we no longer had a job and we no longer had health insurance.”

Rodriguez estimates that at least 600 employees were affected. Only the maintenance crew continued to work.

Hundreds of thousands of California workers are hoping they will benefit from the passage of a hospitality rehiring bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month. This is a great relief, employees say, for them to continue contributing to the state’s economic recovery.

Senate Bill 93 guarantees the right to return to work for approximately 700,000 workers such as housekeepers, cooks, waiters, and bartenders, especially as the state targets June 15 for a full reopening

The loss of work was devastating for Rodriguez, who is the breadwinner for his family of five. Shortly after, he filed for unemployment, but the amount was so low that he had to withdraw a significant amount from his retirement account.

“All this makes you worry and gives you stress because we don’t know anything,” Rodriquez said. “If the girls ask for something, you can’t deny it to them because they don’t know what is going on.” 

Terranea Resort said in a statement that the staff reductions were necessary due to the negative business impact caused by the global pandemic.

“We are working diligently to recover our business,” the company said in a statement. ”Terranea has already been recalling furloughed and laid-off employees since reopening and will continue to do so moving forward as business levels permit.” 

More than a year after the pandemic began, 80% of hotel workers remain unemployed, said Ada Briceño, co-president of the UNITE HERE Local 11 union.

Union officials said many employers, such as Terranea Resort and Chateau Marmont, laid off workers who had made their hotels successful, without extending their healthcare or making no binding commitment to recall them during the worst health crisis in modern history.

Under California’s new law, hotel industry employers must first offer jobs to their employees who were laid off due to the pandemic within a five-day period. From that point on, employees have an additional five days to accept or reject employment.

“Employers must now follow the law,” Briceño said. “They must have a record that this is going to happen and the workers can tell us.”

It’s the latest victory for the union. Since last year, UNITE HERE Local 11 helped push through similar right-to-return measures in Los Angeles, Long Beach and other parts of Southern California.

Similar protections have also passed in other parts of the country, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Oakland and Boston.

Health and Financial Damage

For Minelda Hernandez, who worked as a cook for eight years at Terranea Resort, the loss of health coverage was difficult.

Hernandez, who suffers from diabetes, said that in early 2020 she was fired from her job, and shortly after her health insurance was taken away.

“First they told us that they were going to give us health insurance for three months, but then they said no more (would pay it),” said the employee. “Now I am collecting bottles to have money to buy my medicine.”

Hernandez said that she tried to apply for Medi-Cal and food stamp assistance, but she did not qualify because her salary, prior to the pandemic, was above the median poverty level. Now only her husband is the provider at home that she shares with her 18-year-old son.

“I really need my job, my health insurance. I was always on time to work,” assured Hernandez. “It seems unfair to me that now the company is calling back people who have less seniority than me. When I call to ask if I can come back to work they tell me that there is still no job available for me.”

Rodriguez was also affected by the loss of his health insurance. He said that he was infected with COVID-19 in early January and was hospitalized for three weeks. In those days, one of his daughters also had to be hospitalized due to COVID and kidney failure.

“Now I’m just waiting to see how much the hospital fees are going to be,” Rodriguez said. “And no matter how many times I apply to other jobs, I haven’t been able to find one. This is the reason why I am very happy that the law passed,”

The resort said the pace of rehiring will depend on demand.

“While we have permanently lost some positions, and it may take longer for some roles to return than others, we sincerely hope business levels improve to the point that we can offer additional laid off employees the opportunity to return to our family again.”

Thanks to the bill, Hernandez received word that she got her job back. She returned to work today. 

“We come from our countries for a better future,” she said. “We are not a public charge. We like to work and we want to return to our jobs.” 

Workers in this industry who need more information about the law and their rights can send a text message to 877-877 with the word “Job.”

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles. This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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