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Baltimore City Council approves worker recall bill over law department, hotel industry objections

The Baltimore City Council has passed legislation aimed at protecting hospitality workers' jobs, despite objections from the city’s law department and the hotel industry. The city skyline is shown in 2019.
The Baltimore City Council has passed legislation aimed at protecting hospitality workers' jobs, despite objections from the city’s law department and the hotel industry. The city skyline is shown in 2019. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council passed legislation Monday aimed at protecting hospitality workers' jobs, despite objections from the city’s law department and the hotel industry.

The bill would require hospitality businesses to rehire laid-off workers once they reopen. Thousands of housekeepers, banquet servers and other employees have lost their jobs as the industry suffers from the coronavirus pandemic and related shutdowns.

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The council also passed a second, less-contested bill that would ensure a hotel retains its staff if the ownership of the business changes hands.

The bills now head to the mayor’s desk for his consideration. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has not indicated whether he plans to sign them, but issued a statement via a spokesman saying he will review the legislation.

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Hotel workers have rallied around the bills, saying they’re looking for some certainty that eventually they will get to go back to work.

More than 1,500 hospitality workers had lost their jobs as of mid-September at hotels, the Baltimore Convention Center, Royal Farms Arena and other event centers, according to UNITE HERE Local 7, the union that represents them.

Other cities, including Los Angeles, have taken similar steps to protect workers.

But the Young administration’s law department said the return-to-work bill was not the right way to help workers. It said legislation mandating an employer rehire a laid-off person is “an unconstitutional impairment of the employer/employee freedom of contract.”

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That legal interpretation was dismissed by other attorneys who testified before the City Council, including those with the Public Justice Center.

The Maryland Hotel Lodging Association also opposed the legislation. Representatives said the bills would strip its members of flexibility needed to recover from the economic crisis, as it would require them to hire employees back based on seniority. That may not align with their immediate needs, they said.

Workers with years of experience in the industry testified to the council in favor of the bill. William Murray, a longtime banquet server at Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, told the council he’s been laid off since March.

“The COVID-19 crisis has hit our industry hard,” Murray said. “We have stood by our employer and made them successful for years. We deserve the right to have some certainty that we will be able to return to our jobs."

Also at Monday’s meeting, Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott introduced a bill to establish a program to provide some tenants with legal counsel during eviction proceedings.

Housing activists are bracing for a wave of evictions as COVID-19 continues to wreak economic turmoil. They’ve long pushed for the city to provide tenants with free lawyers when they face being kicked out of their homes.

A recent study, funded by the Abell Foundation, estimates it would cost $5.7 million to provide about 7,000 tenants with representation. By keeping people out of homelessness, the study said it would save more than six times that. It also found that 96% of landlords had representation to argue their cases in rent court, while only 1% of tenants had representation.

Scott said the legislation would make for a “much fairer and more balanced process.”

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