Inés García and Michelle Zakopyko both lost their jobs at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina after working there a combined 70 years. / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

This month would have marked 41 years of employment for Michelle Zakopyko at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina. Inés García would have just hit 31 years.

Both women were part of recent pandemic-induced mass layoffs. Despite their seniority when they were laid off, they have not been offered a chance to return, even as some employees have been called back as visitor numbers have started to rebound.

“I can’t believe they would do that to me,” Zakopyko said. “When I heard they were doing layoffs, I thought I would be OK because I have the most seniority in my department. So it was really very unexpected.”

Zakopyko said she’s been surviving on disability payments. She said she asked if she would be able to apply for open positions in the future – and be given some sort of preference because of her previous experience – and was told by management that they didn’t know if they would honor her seniority in the future.

“They didn’t care when they laid us all off,” she said. “They didn’t feel sorry for us.”

García noticed that in the department in which she worked, room service – the three employees kept on had less experience than many who were laid off.

“It’s frustrating,” García said in Spanish. “Because we have given more than half our lives to that company. There were people who have more than 40 years working there. Can you imagine? It’s not easy for us to find other jobs anymore. We’ve spent all our energy in one place.”

García’s husband has kept his job during the pandemic, she said, and she’s been collecting unemployment, though the recent reduction of the additional benefits provided because of the pandemic has hit her family’s budget.

“We live day to day,” she said. “Our salary isn’t stable like it was before.”

Faced with industrywide layoffs, the region’s hotel workers union is pushing the city of San Diego to adopt a temporary ordinance requiring hotels to offer opportunities for laid-off employees to get their jobs back, as hospitality demand returns. The City Council will consider the measure Tuesday. A similar state measure that would take effect at the start of the year is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The union that represents the hotel’s workers, Unite Here Local 30, filed a grievance against the Sheraton with the National Labor Relations Board in July alleging the hotel “unilaterally furloughed and permanently laid off employees,” without providing adequate notice to the union, an opportunity to bargain over the decision or the criteria it used to select which employees would be permanently laid off versus temporarily furloughed.

The complaint also alleges the hotel “engaged in direct dealing with employees, including by offering them severance agreements and payments, in circumvention of the union.”

The Sheraton, its owner, KSL Reports, and the manager named in the labor complaint did not respond to messages from Voice of San Diego.

The hotel let go of roughly 200 employees, said Brigette Browning, president of Unite Here Local 30. Browning said all of the laid off full-time employees from banquets, the department in which Zakopyko worked, were women.

“I just think it’s ridiculous,” Browning said. “If someone can make it working 40 years at a property it’s because they were a good employee. When we saw a list of the people they kept, some of them had been there for only two weeks.”

Browning thinks the layoff decisions were driven by a desire to get rid of staffers with higher wages and more vacation time. When union officials asked for more information about the system used to determine who would stay and who would go, Browning said they were told that they couldn’t see it because it was a proprietary formula.

“We think they just took this pandemic as a way to take advantage and drive out the long-term employees,” she said.

The union is currently negotiating to get people like Zakopyko and García their jobs back.

Unite Here Local 30 is concerned the Sheraton isn’t unique. Only about 20 percent of San Diego’s hotels are unionized, said Rick Bates, a research analyst at Unite Here Local 30.

As hotels start bringing people back, Unite Here Local 30 wants to ensure that seniority is taken into account.

Michelle Zakopyko lost her job at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina after 40 years of working there. / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council will consider an ordinance that would require hotels and other businesses in the service and hospitality industry to notify laid-off employees of open positions when they become available. Laid-off employees who held similar positions or who could be trained as easily as any new employee, would need to be offered the position, with preference given to the laid-off employee with the most seniority. Employers would need to provide written reasoning if they choose to hire someone else due to the laid-off applicant’s lack of qualification.

The ordinance would remain in effect for six months after the governor ends the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration. The ordinance would not just extend to union workers, but all service and hospitality workers.

Hotels have taken a big hit during the pandemic. By May, hotel tax revenue in the city had plummeted by 90 percent, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

But demand has been increasing again since June, though things like large events in banquet halls are unlikely to resume anytime soon. The number of hotel rooms rented in the county peaked for the year in mid-February, at 61,102, according to the San Diego County Tourism Authority. That plummeted to 11,509 rooms in mid-March. In the last week of August, rooms rented climbed back to 47,987 rooms daily.

Between March and April, approximately 88,100 leisure and hospitality workers in the San Diego area lost their jobs, or 46 percent of the industry’s workforce in the area, with only 43,300 of those jobs having returned as of July 2020 estimates, according to the city’s staff report about the ordinance.

“Further, SANDAG estimates that the five ZIP codes still experiencing the highest unemployment rates are Golden Hill, College Area, City Heights, San Ysidro, and Logan Heights – neighborhoods home to many service workers,” the report read. “These areas have an average unemployment rate around 20 percent, with one in five workers still out of work.”

Other cities, including Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland, have enacted similar local ordinances.

Assembly Bill 3216 also includes provisions to provide laid-off workers a path to return to their jobs, even if an employer or businesses changes ownership. That bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Bates said workers’ rights are typically negotiated through collective bargaining, but the pandemic made a citywide ordinance necessary. Even if the state bill is signed by the governor, it wouldn’t go into effect until January 2021, leaving laid-off workers stuck for months.

“This pandemic came across so quickly and powerfully that no one would have predicted what was going to happen,” Bates said. “It’s the third largest economic industry in the region and it impacted so many jobs.”

Namara Mercer, executive director of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association, said that although the industry wants just as much as the union to bring employees back to work, the ordinance would put restrictions on hotels, which are private entities, that no other businesses have.

“We, as an industry, have been decimated,” Mercer said. “It puts a layer in there that will stall getting workers back to work and they will have restrictions that other businesses won’t have.”

For example, the ordinance includes a 10-day recall period for laid-off employees, which means that hotels would have to wait 10 additional days in their hiring process.

“If the county said tomorrow we could have hotel meetings and special events in hotels, there could be a 10-day lag on that,” Mercer said. “The city is bending over backwards for restaurants, hair salons, barbershops – that they would consider putting another layer of red tape to re-open hotels is really unfair.”

Although room occupancy may be higher than a few months ago, especially on weekends like Labor Day, during the week occupancy will be back at 20 to 30 percent, hotels are still unable to have special events or meetings, which not only continues to limit revenue, but means that employees in those departments – like Zakopyko  in banquets – don’t even have jobs to go back to right now.

“Those employees aren’t going to get hired back,” Mercer said. “The state won’t allow hotels to bring them back because there is no business for them.”

The ordinance would only cover the city of San Diego, which also means the rest of the county would have a comparative advantage once things open up to hire employees and bring back things like special events.

Mary Walshok, the dean of UC San Diego Extension, said ordinances like the one being proposed can have unintended consequences on part-time or less senior workers, like university students who are trying to pay their way through school.

“Legislation like this rarely takes into account the ripple effect on all workers of the impact on the employer, which can result in outcomes that are less desirable than intended,” Walshok said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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