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Baltimore City Council poised to pass job protections for hospitality workers

Vikas Mohite, who was a banquet server laid off by the Marriott, hopes to be helped by worker protection bills considered by the Baltimore City Council, that would ensure that laid-off employees in certain industries were called back to work once their former employers were able to reopen Thu., Oct. 1, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Vikas Mohite, who was a banquet server laid off by the Marriott, hopes to be helped by worker protection bills considered by the Baltimore City Council, that would ensure that laid-off employees in certain industries were called back to work once their former employers were able to reopen Thu., Oct. 1, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For roughly five years, Vikas Mohite was a banquet server at the Baltimore Marriott. He worked galas and conventions, saving up money so he could buy a home in Butchers Hill.

First in a drip, and then in a rush, those kinds of large events were canceled as the coronavirus swept through the city, pummeling its hospitality industry.

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Mohite, 29, was one of thousands of people to lose their jobs as a result. He doesn’t blame his bosses, but he’s looking for some sort of guarantee that once this difficult period passes, he’ll get his job back.

The Baltimore City Council on Monday night could take a step toward easing Mohite’s worries. It is expected to send two bills to the mayor’s desk: The more high-profile one would require hospitality companies to hire their laid-off workers once they reopen, while a second would ensure hotels retain their current staffs if a business’ ownership changes hands.

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“It’s some kind of surety we can go back and work,” Mohite said.

Vikas Mohite, who lost his job as a banquet server at the Marriott during the coronavirus pandemic, is draining his savings as he looks for work. He’s been unsuccessful so far, he says, and besides, “what I know best is hospitality.”
Vikas Mohite, who lost his job as a banquet server at the Marriott during the coronavirus pandemic, is draining his savings as he looks for work. He’s been unsuccessful so far, he says, and besides, “what I know best is hospitality.” (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The union representing hospitality workers has rallied around the COVID-19 Laid-Off Employees Right of Recall bill, saying it’s necessary to protect people, many of whom are Black women, who have suffered from layoffs. Union leaders are concerned that people who have dedicated decades of their lives to the industry will be left out of a recovery, and left to start over alone — if they can find new jobs amid record unemployment.

“If you have a 65-year-old housekeeper who has given you her whole life, what debt do you owe her?” said Tracey Lingo with UNITE HERE Local 7.

More than 1,500 hospitality workers represented by the union had lost their jobs as of mid-September at city hotels, the Baltimore Convention Center, Royal Farms Arena and other event centers, according to the labor organization’s records.

But the hotel industry is pushing back against the legislation. Representatives of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association have testified against the bills, saying the proposals would strip them of needed flexibility as they seek to recover from an unprecedented crisis. The recall bill would compel hotels offer to hire employees back based on seniority; industry representatives said that may not align with a hotel’s immediate needs once it’s able to reopen.

“Hotels do not need local government interference with hiring decisions,” said the group’s president, Amy W. Rohrer.

While the policies are “well-intentioned," she said, they would overregulate a struggling industry. City hotels have been hit hard, with figures from August showing revenue was down 68% over the same month last year.

Local governments in California have adopted a similar measure. Los Angeles passed a law requiring hotels and other businesses to offer jobs to former employees. However, the governor recently vetoed a statewide labor protection bill.

The Baltimore City law department opposes the recall measure. City lawyers, and an attorney with the hospitality association, testified before the City Council last month that it appears that a law mandating an employer rehire a previously laid-off person is “an unconstitutional impairment of the employer/employee freedom of contract.”

That argument is dismissed by union lawyers and attorneys with the Public Justice Center. They call it a misunderstanding of the law that does not stand up to further analysis.

“The contracts clause isn’t even implicated in this,” attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher of Public Justice Center said during a recent council hearing. “This bill simply requires an offer of employment.”

The majority of the council supports the labor protection bills, sponsored by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has not taken a public stance on the legislation; a spokesman did not immediately say whether he would sign the bills into law.

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Should the recall bill become law, any employer who is alleged to have violated the rule could be investigated by the Baltimore City Wage Commission. It could order an employer to reinstate a worker and pay a penalty.

Workers in Baltimore’s tourism and hospitality industry, one of the largest sectors in Baltimore’s economy, have joined the tens of thousands of people who are unemployed because of the pandemic.

Mohite, the banquet server at the Marriott, is draining his savings as he looks for work. He’s been unsuccessful so far, he says, and besides, “what I know best is hospitality.”

Stacey Whye, a housekeeper at the Hilton Baltimore for more than a decade, says she doesn’t want to have to start all over again in a new field. Her job enabled her to raise her two kids, and now it helps her support her 9-year-old granddaughter.

“We want to go back to work,” she said. “We are loyal, dedicated workers. We should not have to worry about whether we’re going to lose our jobs over a pandemic we had nothing to do with. We just want our recall rights.”

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