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Baltimore’s hotel workers have suffered, but punishing hospitality industry would make matters worse | COMMENTARY

The Holiday Inn Express Baltimore-Downtown was recently closed, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. The hotel's sign is covered with a white sheet. October 30, 2020.
The Holiday Inn Express Baltimore-Downtown was recently closed, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. The hotel's sign is covered with a white sheet. October 30, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

With his time left in office now counted in days, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young recently took the difficult, but necessary, step of vetoing two pieces of legislation aimed at helping a truly sympathetic group of people, hotel workers who have either lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic or might be in danger of losing them as the industry regroups. The two measures would have first, required hoteliers to rehire laid-off workers on a preferential basis, and second, should any Baltimore hotel be sold, the new owners would be required to retain staff. Neither carries an unreasonable expectation. One would trust that companies following hospitality industry best practices would follow both standards.

The problem is in making this sensible practice a legal mandate. First, there is a very serious question whether legally requiring the rehiring of laid off workers in a specific industry is even constitutional. The city’s law office advised Mayor Young that it is not. The unions representing hospitality workers disagree and point to similar legislation already in effect in the California cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, and in Providence, Rhode Island. But even if both pass any potential court challenge, there is the greater threat of unintended adverse consequences. How will companies that do business in Baltimore, or might seek to do business in Baltimore, react to this level of government intrusion?

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There are certainly many among us, including quite a few members of the City Council, who will say to that: Who cares? They see the nobility (and popular appeal) of sticking up for housekeepers, valet parking attendants and desk clerks making little more than minimum wage over the welfare of out-of-town millionaire investors. Fair enough. The problem with that philosophy is that if those affluent hotel owners decide that it’s better to do business elsewhere — maybe by not bothering to renovate existing hotels or by building new properties outside the city limits where they don’t face such regulations — those same $12-an-hour workers council members were so anxious to help are the ones who inevitably get hurt the most. And especially troubling is how the adverse economic consequences will ripple across the city.

The worst problems Baltimore faces, from violent crime to drug addiction to adverse health outcomes, stem from its concentrated poverty. A big step toward alleviating that chronic condition is to nurture employment opportunities. Tourism is one of Baltimore’s most successful industries, with an estimated $6 billion economic impact. City officials ought to be in the business of nurturing the hospitality industry and, quite frankly, they have in the past, particularly around the Inner Harbor. But that’s also resulted in something of a political backlash. A cornerstone of Mayor-elect Brandon Scott’s platform has been in greater investment in city neighborhoods with the implication that there have been enough tax abatements given to big companies and not enough assistance offered those struggling to put food on the table.

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Yet what Baltimore needs is both. And while we are sympathetic to union concerns (and strongly endorse their right to promote what they believe are their workers’ best interests), we would also note that their model examples of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Providence and even Oakland have something in common — a lower pre-pandemic unemployment rate than Baltimore’s 4.8% of one year ago. Unemployment in Baltimore now hovers between 9% and 10%, which is more than two points above the statewide average. San Francisco has the highest household income of all major U.S. cities. Its leaders could tell the owners of the $955-a-night Fairmont Heritage Place to offer their employees three times the minimum wage without suffering a serious backlash. Like it or not, Charm City is not in the same position. Baltimore’s median household income doesn’t even crack the top-20 of Maryland’s 24 subdivisions.

That doesn’t mean Mayor Scott is without options going forward. But instead of going through this same fraught exercise again, he should use the power of his bully pulpit to make it clear to the hospitality industry that these are reasonable expectations. Companies that mistreat their workers (and using a once-in-a-century pandemic to union-bust is surely that) will not have a sympathetic ear in City Hall. Let it be known that Baltimore is open for business, but those who abuse their employees are doing themselves no favors. Responsible business owners deserve to be strongly supported, those who are not, don’t. That philosophy is not anti-business, it’s pro smart business, and that is the path to this city’s future prosperity.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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