Amid coronavirus uncertainties, hospitality workers look to labor unions


  • Photo by Chad Sparkes/Flickr
In the hours and days after Orlando theme parks announced they would be closing for at least two weeks, many workers were given conflicting and confusing information about what they needed to do to keep their jobs during the closures. With continued ambiguity and confusion, Orlando's hospitality industry workers are talking more about unions.

From having workers clean a restaurant only to then lay them off to having workers of multi-billion-dollar companies worried about their next paycheck, workers across the region are now facing uncertainty like never before.

Some are experiencing less uncertainty, like the 38,000 service workers at Walt Disney World who are represented by a union. Their employment, health insurance and other benefits are remaining in place despite the resort being closed. This juxtaposition between workers is fueling renewed calls for increased union representation in the industry.

The rise of unions in Florida has been ongoing for some time, with everyone from journalists to adjunct professors seeking better pay, benefits, and more job security via union representation. Journalists at Orlando Sentinel announced their effort to unionize earlier this year, but the vote has been delayed. On March 19, noting that "due to the extraordinary circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic," the National Labor Relations Board approved an indefinite postponement of the Sentinel journalists' union vote. A similar delay also occurred for a union vote that was to take place for some food service workers at Orlando International Airport, where more than 150 workers were laid off in recent days.

  • Photo via URW Airports website
Seeing their coworkers at the Chili's mistreated and lied to, more workers at the Orlando International Airport are speaking up about their job concerns.
After working for nine years as a server at the Orlando International Airport Longhorn Steakhouse (which is ran by the same franchisee, HMSHost, as the Chili's where workers were laid off after cleaning the restaurant), Abi Colon Gomez was laid off mid-shift on Saturday with no advance notice.

When you work together with people, they become your family. Watching how they treat people who I've seen five days a week for the nine years that I’ve been working at the airport, it’s devastating to see the way that HMSHost doesn’t really care about that family. Now, in these hard times, companies like HMSHost take this moment to just worry about their profit and not people. I feel like my family is suffering, and I see it with every text and phone call I get."

Gomez believes that the union efforts at MCO and around the region might be one way for hospitality workers to address the horror stories that have happened over the past week.

To me, the union will be the perfect tool to stop companies from taking advantage of us. Look at the Disney coworkers and everyone else with a union. They’ve been sticking together and they don't need to worry as much about what the company is doing to save themselves money. For us, we don’t even know if we’re going to get a job back. The only way for this to change is for us to have a union."
The discussion of how to ensure similar stories don't happen again has caused workers to reach out to one another, in an effort to develop plans for when they do report back to work. According to multiple team members who spoke to Orlando Weekly, efforts toward unionization are slowly moving forward at Universal Orlando as well, where many workers have felt left in the dark as the company looks to respond to the unprecedented situation it now faces. Mixed messages that told team members to report to work, then to not come in, left many team members frustrated, confused, and worried. The lack of certainty seems to be driving the discussions for wanting to unionize.

Things couldn't be more different just down the street at Disney World, where more than 28,000 workers are represented by Unite Here 362 and Unite Here 737, jointly known as Unite Here Central Florida. Eric Clinton, President of Unite Here 362, explained, "Our members are being hit really, really hard right now by the coronavirus. This is the moment that highlights the importance of workers having a union at their jobs. There's not a member at Disney World who is worried about losing their health insurance over this."

Clinton remains optimistic that the local economy will rebound.

"We don't want visitors right now, but when this ends, I know Orlando will, as it has in the past, bounce back faster because of how skilled our workers are. Orlando has the best hospitality workers in the world. People come back over and over again because of how great our members and all workers in the industry here are. The hospitality industry will come back. The union is a vehicle for workers to say to their bosses' never again' [will we have to worry about health insurance or pay during a crisis like this]."

Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers across the nation, is looking to become a resource for all workers in the industry, offering advice, assistance, and other tools during and after this crisis.
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Worker and social protections are quickly becoming more popular nationwide with a recent YouGov/The Economist poll showing 84 percent of Americans now support paid sick leave. Ever since Orange County citizens approved a required sick time initiative that was then blocked by former Republican Governor (and now self-quarantined Florida Senator) Rick Scott, there have been other pushes to low paid tourism workers are protected during times of crisis. Until this year, one of the only success stories was the $15 starting pay for most Disney World workers, thanks in part to the multi-year work done by Unite Here. After that, Universal and SeaWorld both agreed to also increase their starting pay, though none have yet to reach the full $15 per hour for all workers.

So far, the piecemeal approach of adding paid sick time or increased wages hasn't been enough to ease the concerns of workers who continue to read headlines of sudden layoffs and employers' lies. Orlando's tens of thousands of tourism workers are readying for a battle that won't go away with coronavirus. This time, says Clinton, hospitality workers want to be able to say "never again."

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