EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of stories about the Berkeley Marina written by UC Berkeley journalism graduate students in partnership with Berkeleyside.
With the hospitality industry showing signs of a post-pandemic comeback, local hotel workers are fighting for higher pay and affordable health care and against increased workloads.
Hospitality workers, including housekeepers, janitors, cooks, servers, and maintenance engineers, at the DoubleTree by Hilton in the Berkeley Marina have been working without a union contract since 2018 and in late October many of them joined a nationwide protest to draw attention to their plight.
The uptick in protests comes at a time when the hotel industry, which suffered a severe slump as COVID-19 raged, is showing signs of recovery. U.S. hotel occupancy currently stands at 59.8%, compared with less than 40% at the beginning of the year, according to a report from STR, a hospitality analytics firm.
As the city of Berkeley wrestles with ambitious plans to revitalize the Berkeley Marina, the viability of the DoubleTree, the marina’s sole hotel, is important to its success. The hotel’s lease payments account for 21% of Marina Fund revenues.
Last year, DoubleTree’s occupancy rate dipped from 90% to 30%, according to the city of Berkeley. To make matters worse it is facing competition with the arrival of a downtown Residence Inn, a Marriott operation that has already cut a deal with UC Berkeley for alumni preferences and is expecting to open in December.
DoubleTree workers are asking for a contract comparable to other local hotel workers, according to Ted Waechter, spokesperson and organizer for Unite Here.
Waechter said many DoubleTree workers “are still making the minimum wage, which is just about over $16 an hour. Meanwhile, in many other hotels that we represent, the workers have already signed the contract; the other workers who do the same jobs at nearby hotels are already making $4 to $5 more per hour.”
DoubleTree management declined to comment beyond confirming that it is currently negotiating a new contract with Unite Here.
The union says DoubleTree has proposed increasing the share of health care costs borne by new workers. Instead of having their insurance premiums paid by DoubleTree, newly hired workers would have to pay a percentage of their premiums for the first five years.
“The standard that we’ve won for virtually all hotel workers is that after you pass your probation as a new hire, you get good affordable health care for your family,” Waechter said. “And there’s only very small co-pays. Meanwhile, union hotel workers at virtually every other hotel in the East Bay don’t have to pay out-of-pocket in terms of their health care premiums at all.”
The workers are also seeking to restore full housekeeping services, which many hotels cut back to reduce labor costs during the pandemic.
“The hotel industry wants to go back to full occupancy without ever bringing back the full workforce, but we are fighting to stop them,” Yolanda Chen, a housekeeper at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco, said in a union news release.
Unite Here, the union that launched the nationwide protest on Oct. 28, represents 300,000 workers across Canada and the U.S., in hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing and other industries.
Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center and an assistant adjunct professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, said the protests are what he calls the “great rebellion.”
“This is a moment where so many workers are just walking away from the hospitality industry in general and saying, ‘Enough is enough,” she said.
The decline in labor is the largest pressure facing the hotel industry, said Zach Demuth, senior manager 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 recover and occupancy rises, this negatively impacts the guest experience and puts further pressure on owners and operators. There are numerous initiatives being rolled out to help correct this trend as a strong workforce is vital to the long-term health of the industry.”
The hotel business locally 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 were temporarily closed from March to October 2020. The city’s hotel tax revenues declined by 70%, a loss of $4.7 million year-over-year from March to November 2020.
Aria Yang is a student in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley covering economic development.