Hospitality Workers Call For More COVID-19 Protections As Phoenix Tables Proposal

Published: Tuesday, July 7, 2020 - 1:11pm
Updated: Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 8:25am
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LAUREN GILGER: The hospitality industry and its workers unions were set to square off this week at the Phoenix City Council after three city council members joined together to push through a last-minute set of regulations meant to protect the health of workers during the pandemic. But the three council members pulled those proposals just before the council's last meeting of this session.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Industry stakeholders said they were "stunned" by the package of rules and were not part of the process to shape it. Here's Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Glenn Hamer.

GLENN HAMER: It's terrible policy and probably even worse process. This was a sneak attack on an industry that has suffered more than any other industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. And I'm also going to say an industry that has done more to have safety protocols in place for its workers and its customers than any other industry. It was completely uncalled for and the right result happened in terms of this terrible proposal being removed from the agenda and withdrawn.

GOLDSTEIN: The proposal put a cap on the amount of space a housekeeper could be required to clean in a day, mandated 15-minute breaks for workers every four hours, required employees to pass a public hygiene class and added 80 hours of paid sick leave for those who aren't covered by the federal Coronavirus Response Act. But Hamer says this was simply a union power play.

HAMER: And it's obvious in the way it was designed that basically you had to do all of these types of regulatory activities, many of which had really nothing to do with safety protocols at all. You would have to do those unless you had a collective bargaining agreement. Arizona already has a sick leave law in place. The federal CARES Act provided, appropriately, additional protections for sick leave as well as unemployment insurance. And again, this, this, this was a proposal written without any sort of industry consultation and written for an industry that has suffered during the, the at least the peak of the pandemic, about 40 to 50% of all the jobs in the hotel and hospitality industry were wiped out in the state of Arizona and nationwide. So this proposal that was put out there not only would have really harmed the industry but would have made it extremely difficult for a lot of the workers to ever have a chance to get their jobs back.

GILGER: And Hamer says when it comes to safety for workers in Arizona's hospitality industry, they're already doing it.

HAMER: The Arizona Hotel Association is leading the charge in the state of Arizona in terms of having safety protocols. They care about their workers. They care about their customers. You can't get people to stay in a hotel if they don't feel it's safe for themselves as well as for the people who are working at the hotels. So it's in the industry's self-interest to make sure that they have the safety protocols in place so that workers and customers and consumers feel safe. The industry has proactively been on top of this, and they're following all state and CDC guidelines. And for the largest city in the state of Arizona to seriously consider that type of proposal would have been disastrous for the entire reputation for business for the city of Phoenix.

GILGER: But on the other side of this argument, Rachel Sulkes with UNITE HERE (Local) 11 says workers need protections now. I spoke with her more about it recently.

RACHEL SULKES: You know, this has been a really tumultuous period of time. It's been unprecedented for all of us. I mean, since March, it felt like overnight, 90% of our members were laid off and have begun the process of applying for unemployment, dealing with health insurance issues and all of that. So people definitely want to come back to work for a variety of reasons because of financial ones, because they've lost their health insurance and they need their health insurance. But that's really been tempered by the sobering numbers that we continue to see about the rising number of cases. And we don't hear a lot of clear guidelines about what the new protocols are going to be to keep the members safe. So I'm hearing a lot of anxiety mixed with an eagerness to come back. But people are very concerned about bringing home, potentially, the virus to their families. People tend to be caring for multi-generations. So we're hearing a mixture of things.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about these proposed measures of 4,000 square foot max for housekeepers, a mandatory 15-minute breaks per four hours, 80 hours of sick leave. There are a few other things here. How were these measures agreed upon? How did they come to the attention of the City Council and get on the agenda initially this week?

SULKES: So we've seen a lot of the multinational corporations that we deal with here in Phoenix, but then across the country, like HMSHost and Marriott. And a lot of the big companies, the quote-unquote "job creators," go to the federal government for (Paycheck Protection Program) and other kinds of financial relief to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their bottom lines. And it's prompted a conversation among our workers, among our leadership, to basically ask the question of, "Well, where is the corresponding worker relief coming from? What happens for the people who are living paycheck to paycheck?," which is by and large the workforce that enables these companies to make the money that they make and is honestly the average person, right? Very few of us run multinational corporations. So we really started thinking about, "Well, what's there for them?" We want to make sure that the workers' voices are included in those discussions as well. So there were some things that in talking with our members, we understand it's going to take more time for them to clean themselves between rooms, for example, to not transmit whatever they've encountered in one room into the other. A lot of our people work with food and are preparing things, and so they really need more time to follow all of the guidelines to the T that do exist and the ones that hopefully are going to be forthcoming as we learn how to live with the virus. You know, when the pandemic first hit, nobody knew how long was the pandemic going to go on for, right? So people used their paid time off that they had accrued through their employment to tide them between the period of time when they got laid off and when their unemployment checks finally kicked in, which has been several weeks in some cases. And so the reality is, a lot of these workers burned through their paid time off. So now they're in a scenario where they're being asked to return to work as the numbers are going up in Arizona, but without the assurance that if they themselves become ill, that they will have the resources, the time to stay home and recuperate.

GILGER: Representatives, though, of the hospitality industry seemed really stunned by these measures. They said they only had a couple of days to review the proposal before the vote was initially set and that they were excluded from the process of crafting it. Do you think this was rushed?

SULKES: I think that if that is their objection, then I am more than happy to have the conversation. If that is the objection. I am not fearful of a process. I think that conversation is good. But the workers and the situations that they are facing right now need to be an important part of that conversation. Folks are going back to work in the middle of a pandemic having lost their health insurance. That is not a good recipe for a successful return to work and reopening of the economy.

GILGER: All right. That is Rachel Sulkes, communications director with UNITE HERE 11. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us.

SULKES: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

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