POLITICS

Older Blue-Collar Workers Fear They’ll Be Left Behind As The Economy Reopens

A showdown at a ritzy South Florida hotel raises questions about who's going back to work after the coronavirus pandemic: veteran workers, or younger, cheaper replacements?
Julio Lopez handles a suitcase at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, before COVID-19 forced it to close. The 16
Julio Lopez handles a suitcase at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, before COVID-19 forced it to close. The 16-year hotel veteran and his co-workers are demanding that they get their jobs back once the hotel reopens.

When guests entered their rooms at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, Julio Lopez was always right behind them, hauling their luggage. The 1,000-room hotel, with balconies looking over the turquoise breakers of the Atlantic Ocean, is as vast as it is beautiful, and on an average workday, Lopez, who is 46, walked between 20 and 25 miles.

“It’s backbreaking work,” Lopez said. “I’m in the rain when it rains, I’m in the heat when it’s hot, I’m in the cold when it’s cold.”

Still, he made a living wage as a doorman, at least until COVID-19 shut the hotel down.

Lopez always expected the Diplomat to call him back to work once it reopened — not just out of expediency, but because he and the hundreds of other workers who staffed the hotel have a “right of recall” in their union contract. Whenever the hotel lays people off, those same workers are supposed to be the first in line if the hotel makes any new hires in the next 12 months. 

But the pandemic has dragged on for more than 12 months. The hotel announced that it would remain closed until at least this summer. And its owner, the global real estate conglomerate Brookfield Property Partners, has refused to promise Lopez and hundreds of his co-workers that they would get their old jobs back.

Now, Lopez is one of millions of people who are out of work and watching the end of the pandemic approach with the same fear: that they will be replaced with younger, cheaper workers.

“What we’re trying to convey to the company is, these workers shouldn’t suffer the anxiety that comes with not knowing if their job is secure,” said Wendi Walsh, the principal officer for Unite Here Local 355, the union that represents about 625 workers out of the Diplomat’s 800-plus former workforce. “We can’t sit by and let businesses take advantage of a pandemic to replace loyal, longtime workers.”

The workers of the Diplomat are not alone. All across the country, people who were forced out of their jobs by the pandemic are terrified that their old employers will use this as an opportunity to replace them. That is especially true in the hard-hit hospitality industry, where hundreds of businesses have closed for good and there are far fewer jobs to go around.

A few of the hundreds of Diplomat hotel staff stage a protest on March 12 to demand their jobs back.
A few of the hundreds of Diplomat hotel staff stage a protest on March 12 to demand their jobs back.

The anxiety runs deepest for older workers who managed to do the improbable and earn a living wage through a lifetime of blue-collar work. If they lose their jobs — and the raises, relationships and benefits they’ve accrued over their years of service — it is unlikely that they will ever make as good a living again. Even during the boom years before this recession, the majority of older workers who lost their jobs never recovered their previous earnings. 

Workers who face racial discrimination on top of ageism are in an even more precarious spot.

“A lot of these workers, they are overwhelmingly immigrants, people of color and women, folks who we know face discrimination in hiring,” Walsh said. “If they lost this job and go out and look for a new job, it will come nowhere near matching the wages and benefits they’ve accumulated over the years at their existing jobs. For Julio, that job has been a career.”

Aside from the risk of management seeking cheaper labor, there may not be as many hospitality jobs to go around in the post-COVID era. It’s possible that COVID-19 vaccinations will unleash a shockwave of demand for hotels and restaurants. But fancy meals and hotel suites are not like new shoes or appliances, said Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed.com. They can’t be warehoused. You can only fit so many diners in a restaurant at once, meaning the pace of recovery for battered hospitality businesses has a ceiling. 

“This question of how tight is the labor market going to be with the imminent reopening of the economy is, to me, the biggest question in the labor market right now,” Bunker said.

The hospitality sector is still adding very few jobs. Business travel may have changed for good. And millions of people will emerge from the pandemic with new habits. Maybe no one will ever cook at home again — or maybe the entire country will decide it prefers spending time at home with Netflix and new Peletons.

“Those are both extreme examples that are not going to happen, but where we’re going to land on that spectrum has huge consequences for the economy, and for an individual person who lost their job, how quickly they can get back to work at their old employer or have to go look for a new one,” Bunker said.

Those with their livelihoods on the line aren’t waiting to find out. On Friday, nearly 200 former Diplomat workers picketed outside the hotel to demand their jobs back. The one-story fountain that flanks the front entrance was shut off, and the hundreds of guest balconies were empty. 

Many of the demonstrators had worked at the Diplomat for nearly two decades. They kept its doors open through multiple changes in ownership and when Hurricane Irma sawed through South Florida. Together, they have worked a collective 10,000 years at the hotel, Walsh estimated, many at a steep cost to their bodies.

Lopez at the March 12 protest.
Lopez at the March 12 protest.

“Can you imagine cleaning 20, 30 rooms a day?” Lopez said of his co-workers who are housekeepers. “I couldn’t do it.”

Out of all the South Florida businesses whose workers are represented by Unite Here, the Diplomat has been the most reluctant to promise longtime workers their old jobs back. Virtually all the other employers — casinos, restaurants, hotels, airport retailers — have signed agreements with the union to rehire the same workers as far in the future as 2022 and 2023.

The Diplomat, by contrast, has only offered to extend recall rights to May 31, when the hotel will still be closed, Walsh said. It plans to reopen no earlier than June 1, and not at full capacity. The hotel won’t need a full staff of 800 until Florida starts hosting live events and big conventions again.

A Brookfield spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. In statements to other news outlets, Brookfield said the June 1 reopening date could be pushed further back, and it has not addressed the question of rehiring veteran workers.

“Group hotels like the Diplomat cannot function without conventions and events operating at full or near-full capacity,” Andrew Brent, Brookfield’s senior vice president for communications, told the Miami Herald. “It is an unfortunate reality for the Diplomat community and its workforce.”

The Diplomat has been shut down since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic.
The Diplomat has been shut down since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic.

When the hotel reopens, there may be more pressure than ever before to turn a profit. Brookfield acquired the hotel in order to flip it. It oversaw a major renovation of the Diplomat in 2017 and placed it on the market in 2019, only to see a planned sale of the hotel for $800 million dissolve amid the worsening pandemic.

“More and more companies are seeing this pandemic as an opportunity, as a free hand to do whatever they want,” Walsh said. “[Brookfield] knows the value to their bottom line of reducing labor costs by hiring new workers. But the cost to the community is huge. … We won’t see a true economic recovery if big hotel owners like Brookfield aren’t going to offer their workers any security.”  

For Lopez, the life he once enjoyed is in jeopardy. His wife works but earns much less than he did, and they have two teenage children. He recently lost his father and has begun sending more money to his mother. And because the layoff cost him his health care coverage, he has stopped taking his blood pressure medication.

“We used to eat out like normal families on the weekend. Now just ordering pizza is a tremendous challenge. We [my wife and I] have to look at each other and count: ‘Is that a possibility?’ And the kids look at us like, ‘We can’t even order pizza?’” Lopez said. Sometimes their kids, 13 and 15, volunteer to pay for things using their own savings. “It’s embarrassing.”

Going back to work at the Diplomat is the only path forward that offers him any hope.

“I remember my bosses patting me on the back, making me Employee of the Month, and I’m not the only one,” Lopez said. “I don’t want to be forgotten.”