“Did you see Hilton is getting rid of workers permanently?” Jungmin Kim, my coworker, came running to ask me before I could even get to the front desk. Confused by her panic, I asked what she meant. Her eyes widened as she took a deep breath. She told me and another worker that the CEO told investors that when the pandemic is over, Hilton will operate with fewer workers. I could feel the heat generating from my feet to my head. My blood was boiling. Angrily, I said, “They cannot do that!” She explained to me that our employer has refused to extend our union contract’s recall rights past two years. Workers who have been permanently laid off may lose their ability to come back to their jobs. With 10 months left to get our jobs back, it dawned on me that we are running out of time.
As COVID-19 started to reach Hawaii in March 2020, over 2,000 workers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Doubletree by Hilton Alana Hotel received a letter from management about closing the hotels. We hoped the pandemic would pass and we would return to work in a month. It became more terrifying when months passed and there was still no word from the hotel.
Over a year later and despite Hilton-managed hotels finally being open, only a few of us have been recalled back to our jobs. The remaining uncalled workers continue to be scared of when they would return to work—how they would afford rent or mortgage, and what they would be feeding their kids should the situation remain the same.
Meanwhile, workers at other union hotels represented by UNITE HERE Local 5—such as the Ala Moana Hotel, Modern Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach Resort—fought for and already won one more year of recall rights.
Jason Maxwell, a bartender at the Modern Honolulu, organized his coworkers to demand an extension of their recall rights from Diamond Resorts, a timeshare company that owns and operates his hotel. “When we would get management to Zoom meetings, we would load the call with about 40 workers. We made sure they listened to the concerns of workers directly. Management tried to hide their anger, but the Diamond Resorts guy began panicking and hung up because of the number of workers on the call. The meetings lasted hours, because we brought up other issues like workplace safety, but one of the outcomes from that meeting was winning one more year of recall rights.”
He added, “We also passed out leaflets to guests and conducted safety inspections to make sure management was implementing the proper safety procedures in the middle of a pandemic. At some point, management tried to block us from coming onto property. We stood firm and kept going.”
Maxwell said he was close to achieving his dream of buying a home for his family pre-pandemic. “This victory of the recall rights extension gave me hope. It would give our union a chance and time to fight. If they do bring jobs back, then the same workers come back,” said Maxwell, with relief that the pandemic was not the end of his dreams.
At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, management recently reopened the Wiki Wiki Market, Starbucks, and Starlight Luau after months of workers fighting for union restaurants to reopen. Some Food and Beverage workers were finally able to return to work. Unfortunately, there are still workers like Earl Kono, an employee at Tree’s, who was told by his general manager that they have no plans to reopen Doubletree by Hilton’s only in-house restaurant.
Kono said, “Losing my recall rights frightens me. I am a single father taking care of my kids and my grandson. Every night, I’m on the verge of breaking down thinking about our future. I’ve been hearing stories on the news about people going homeless, and I don’t want my family to be next.”
The engineers in the maintenance departments are also anxious. Jesus Ragasa, an engineer from the Doubletree by Hilton Alana Hotel, is working full-time again. Many of his colleagues, however, remain furloughed. He anticipates double the workload if there continues to be only three full-time engineers, instead of eight pre-pandemic engineers. An extension of recall rights would mean the maintenance workers would have extra time to fight for their jobs back, especially when Waikiki Hilton hotels eventually return to full occupancies again. If workers who were laid off in the beginning of the pandemic are not recalled by March 2022, Hilton might end these positions permanently.
There is a false narrative that workers are living comfortably off unemployment and do not want to return to work. In reality, we are struggling and on the edge of our seats, frightened for the future. We desperately want our hotel jobs back. Earl Kono said, “We have to stick together and fight for our jobs. We have to organize and push our managers to do something about this. Extending isn’t going to cost them a penny, so why is it so hard for them to agree with us and give us peace of mind?”