Alex Dame lost her health insurance in April, the letter arriving the same day she had a doctor’s appointment to treat a chronic condition. She paid out of pocket.
More recently, Dame said, her hours as a banquet server for the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront have been cut. She had to take a microloan to pay her rent.
The 48-year-old Mount Vernon resident is among a group of workers at the Harbor East hotel who say they want to unionize to seek better pay and benefits, and increased hours. They say the hotel won tax breaks from the city by promising to bring jobs to the area, but that those jobs don’t pay enough to live on.
Dozens of workers picketed Thursday afternoon in front of the Harbor East hotel to highlight their plight.
“One job,” they chanted in a call-and-response, walking along the sidewalk, “Should be enough.”
Unite Here represents 3,000 hospitality workers in the Baltimore area, including about 700 hotel workers at places such as the Hyatt Regency and the HIlton Baltimore, said Tracy Lingo, staff director for Baltimore-based Local 7 of Unite Here. Local 7 represents some workers at the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, food service workers at universities, workers at the Baltimore Convention Center and concession workers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The Marriott workers want the Bethesda-based hotel management company to agree to a process that can take place in a neutral environment without retaliation or harassment, Lingo said.
The Harbor East Marriott is among big projects that received city tax breaks designed to help spur economic development and create jobs. Under a 1998 agreement, the city gave hotel developer H&S Properties a $5 million low-interest loan, a $5 million grant and a break on property taxes through a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes. The hotel pays $1 a year on property taxes for 25 years.
“A lot of downtown development has been paid for by these big subsidies that are justified by the hotels to create good jobs,” Lingo said. “What we’re finding is even though Marriott is the largest hospitality company in the world, workers are not able to sustain themselves on the jobs in the hotel.”
Some workers have taken multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Mohammed Saif, who works as a server at Apropoe’s in the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, has taken on extra jobs just to support his family.
Saif, a 56-year-old Towson resident, said he has not had a raise in four years. He typically starts working at the restaurant around 6 a.m., then after his shift runs a small corner grocery on the west side of the city until evening. For a while, he worked a third job driving for Uber but gave that up when he became worried about falling asleep.
“I cannot survive with the one job,” said Saif, who worked at the hotel from 2001 to 2005, then returned in 2010 to a job that pays $7.47 an hour plus tips. “I have a family. I have to take care of my children. We just want a fair process” to decide on union representation.
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Lingo said workers at the Baltimore Marriott are among employees of the hospitality giant across the country who are taking similar steps and fighting for improved wages. Some Marriott hotels are unionized, while others are not.
“These are workers who are speaking out and joining workers across the country, doing same thing in nearly 100 Marriotts, both union and nonunion workers standing up to say one job should be enough and should be able to pay people enough to live in cities, work, raise families, not be in debt and retire with dignity,” Lingo said.
Hotel organizing efforts in Baltimore and elsewhere, along with campaigns at other tourism-related businesses such as casinos, are part of a larger goal by unions to improve wages, benefits and working conditions in service sector jobs, union representatives and labor experts say.
Unite Here launched a similar national campaign in 2013 aimed at unionized and nonunionized Hyatt hotels to fight what the group said was a growing trend of hotels reducing permanent staff and hiring temporary workers instead. The Hyatt Regency Baltimore voted to unionize in 2014 after management agreed to a legally binding neutrality agreement that oversaw the organizing process.
If the unionization effort succeeds, Local 7 would represent about 220 of the Baltimore Marriott’s workers, including housekeepers who do not work for contractors, cooks, restaurant and banquet servers, bartenders and others.
Jose Ramirez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has worked for Marriott for 20 years and in Baltimore since 2007, said he joined the union fight to try to increase his hours and shifts from only four days a week. Last year, he earned $22,000.
“I’m 62 years old,” he said in a union announcement. “I’d love to be making plans to retire and travel around the world. But I have to spend money from my 401K just to pay my bills. How am I going to retire?”