Major hotel brands are among the top-rated companies to work for according to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmarking tool on corporate policies, practices and benefits. Among those earning top scores include Carlson Inc. (the owner of Regent, Radison and other brands), Choice Hotels International, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Kimpton, Travel + Leisure Co. and Wyndham. 

The industry has tremendous challenges, however, and has often faced backlash from its most ardent travelers in the LGBTQ community. 

Add to these problems, hotel jobs have been especially hard hit by COVID-19 and a national shift in labor, often referred to as the great resignation. So, despite high rankings by HRC, hotels are up for a large amount of scrutiny when examining high levels of success and happiness among their LGBTQ workers.

Many of these workers left hospitality – which includes food and beverage service, lodging and tourism – for jobs that offer more competitive wages, better benefits, and more flexibility, according to Joblist’s 2021 reports. Even though there are some signs of quitting regret as recession concerns build, only 31% of hospitality workers say they would consider going back to their old job. 

The North Carolina Department of Commerce reported more than 59,000 employees in the Charlotte area left the hospitality industry during the start of the pandemic. Statewide, it is one of the lowest paid industries at an average of $383 a week. While pay for non-managers in the leisure and hospitality sector rose 10 percent in June compared with a year earlier, the average wage nationwide is less than $18 an hour, according to the latest BLS wage data. Many in the field also work part time and jobs lack benefits found in other sectors. 

Hotels also saw a major revenue-related reduction in staffing brought on by COVID that hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Following the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ February (2022) employment report, the U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy Tori Emerson Barnes released a statement saying, “the overall jobs report today may be good economic news for certain sectors, but nearly three quarters (73%) of all jobs still lost due to the pandemic are in Leisure & Hospitality.” 

Barnes cites a lack of available workers and reduced international and business travel as some of the major root causes.  

These challenges take a toll on the industry, but also on the workers. 

“For an organization and its employees to be the most successful, a culture that merely supports DEI and belonging is not enough. Instead, DEI and belonging must be the cultural foundation upon which the organization is built.” (IGLTA DEI Strategies for a Stronger Global Tourism Industry Report, 2022) Photo by @MARKMORINii/markmorinii.com

IMPROVING WORKING CONDITIONS AND ACCESS TO THE INDUSTRY

Some in the industry are working to improve conditions and entry for LGBTQ people in hopes of boosting the field. In 2021, the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) hosted a think tank to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and responsible tourism. 

One participant noted in the subsequent report that “Often, we consider initiatives to work on and then we reflect, were we inclusive? If we are diverse, are the diverse voices represented in what we do?”

The group found that increased accountability must be at the executive leadership level and filtered into the DNA of the company. “Coaching and training for leaders should be ongoing so they are aware of the importance of civility and understanding their employees,” read the report. 

In considering all places of work, one in ten LGBTQ workers report experiencing discrimination and LGBTQ workers of color are more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment (Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, 2021). 38% of LGBTQ employees reported experiencing at least one form of harassment (including verbal, physical or sexual harassment) at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives. A majority of those were motivated by religion. 

But a hostile work environment doesn’t necessarily exist only in non-LGBTQ environments. One hospitality worker in North Carolina whom Qnotes spoke with said that working for one gay hotel owner was “extremely stress-inducing,” noting moments of harassing behavior and major disparities in pay, especially among BIPOC staff. At this particular boutique hotel, a mid-level staff person makes approximately 63% less than what the owner pockets. Plus, jobs in the field rarely include paid time off or health insurance. 

Rumors of overtime roll-over are heard among staff, an activity that is a clear violation of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The law requires that nonexempt employees must be paid “time and a half” (150%) for any hours over 40 worked in one standard workweek. 

“We sign paperwork that says no overtime is permitted,” he says. “No time off. No sick days.” We are avoiding using specific names or locations in this instance to protect the employee. 

SOLIDARITY WITH SOCIAL JUSTICE

In 2006, the labor union UNITE HERE launched a new campaign and alliance to support LGBTQ hotel workers. “Sleep with the Right People” asked for support from the $60 billion a year LGBTQ travel market in honoring picket lines and respecting boycotts. Its efforts were focused in particular on Hyatt, calling the company both anti-worker and anti-gay. One of the hotels owners, Doug Manchester gave $125,000 to support Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that prohibited same-sex marriage in 2008. He has since walked that support back, saying he regretted the donation during a Senate hearing on his unsuccessful nomination for U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas in 2017. UNITE HERE contributed significant funds and organizing resources to defeat the measure. Prop 8 was eventually overturned in court. 

The GOP eventually cut ties with Manchester as well after a 2019 investigation that, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a paper that Manchester previously ran, launched a criminal investigation into his nomination. 

According to its website, UNITE HERE represents 300,000 working people across Canada and the United States. Members work in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries. Its membership is diverse with a predominance of women and people of color, and it was the first union to ratify a comprehensive statement in support of civil and economic rights for LGBTQ people. 

For over fifteen years, Cleve Jones has been a community and political coordinator with UNITE HERE. The longtime human rights activist joined the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s while working in Harvey Milk’s City Hall office. His book, “When We Rise” inspired the ABC miniseries in 2017 of the same name and recounts those early days where Milk served as an important early mentor. 

“I found home in the Union 15 years ago, and I think Harvey [Milk] would be proud,” says Cleve Jones. | Photo courtesy of Cleve Jones

“Jones found community – in hotel rooms and ramshackle apartments shared by other young adventurers, in the city’s bathhouses and gay bars like The Stud, and in the burgeoning gay district, the Castro, where a New York transplant named Harvey Milk set up a camera shop, began shouting through his bullhorn, and soon became the nation’s most outspoken gay elected official. With Milk’s encouragement, Jones dove into politics and found his calling in ‘the movement.’ When Milk was killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1978, Jones took up his mentor’s progressive mantle only to see the arrival of AIDS transform his life once again.”

– excerpt from the description of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones.

His work with UNITE HERE began when a number of LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations were not honoring a workers’ request to boycott Hilton hotels years ago. Jones had always supported unions going back to his days working with Milk. In 1974, the Teamsters attempted to organize a strike against Coors Beer because they refused to sign a union contract. Milk formed an early coalition and helped organize a boycott, urging gay bars to stop selling the product. The boycott was successful, and he found a strong political ally. “I know the potential power of a coalition between the two movements,” says Jones. 

Jones pointed out to the unions that all the major hotel and resort chains had consistently marketed directly and aggressively to the LGBTQ community. “And also, there are just huge numbers of our people working within the industry, throughout the United States and Canada,” he says. “So, it seems to me a no-brainer that the union should be really paying some attention.” 

Out of those early conversations has come a lot of good work. 

“We started with the Sleep with the Right People campaign, which is about to get revamped now that our folks are going back to work, and people are traveling again. The purpose of that was to direct people to our parent hotels’ site where they can patronize hotels that respect their workers, have union contracts – where travelers can know that the staff is being paid a decent wage and has safe working conditions, and access to health care for themselves and their families.” 

Jones points out that there were also some internal issues of homophobia and transphobia within the union early on. UNITE HERE made a strong commitment to address the issues, and Jones traveled around both countries to help initiate changes. “For several years, that was actually my main focus – was going in and organizing these big meetings with our staff and our members that was oftentimes very emotional, very powerful people coming out for the first time,” he says. 

The union was also increasing their participation in annual Pride events. Prior to COVID, they marched in about 36 cities across the U.S. and Canada. LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations noticed too. “I’ve been very proud of the way the community has shown its support for the workers,” says Jones. Despite the fact that most of these organizations within our community survive the revenue from big galas and banquets, many have been willing to cancel or change venues when approached by UNITE HERE, sometimes while risking losing their deposit. 

The union is now rebuilding after COVID-induced layoffs or furloughs impacted a significant number of its members. Jones is currently working on a project to recruit LGBTQ folks to work with the union in three battleground states leading up to the midterm elections. 

“One thing that many people don’t know about our union is that we operate a very powerful political campaign apparatus in those states where we are strongest,” says Jones. UNITE HERE is sending people to Nevada, Arizona and Philadelphia, and always one to challenge the next generation, Jones points out that the opportunity is a great one for young queer people to develop their activist skills. He says, “working with UNITE HERE is such a fantastic opportunity, especially for younger people, but for people of all ages who understand the reality that everything we care about could be lost if the Republicans take Congress.”  

“I found home in the Union 15 years ago, and I think Harvey would be proud,” says Jones, looking back. “I worked with him on the Coors Beer boycott with the Teamsters and also with him on California’s Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which brought us real close to the teacher’s union and the public employees’ unions.”

The Briggs Initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. 

Marchers protest the Briggs Initiative, otherwise known as California Proposition 6, at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day parade in San Francisco. Photograph by Donald Eckert, Hormel LGBTQIA Center, San Francisco Public Library and is licensed under CC.

NEXT STEPS FOR UNIONS

Historically, some unions have been very top heavy and bureaucratic says Jones – pointing out that it’s not the case with UNITE HERE. 

“We’ve done a really good job over the last 10 years of making sure that our leadership looks like our membership,” he says. “I think that’s something that many unions have to address.” 

LGBTQ people remain vulnerable in nearly all jobs. The push for added protections, non-discrimination ordinances and a national Equality Act that would update Title XII by explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics continues to be among the many goals of LGBTQ organizations and activists. 

Jones says unions can play a big part in that by leaning on their political organizing strategies, but even more importantly unions can negotiate protections that might be stripped away through legislative action. “What I really want people to pay attention to is that with this Supreme Court, it is very clear that all of those state-level bills to legislate freedom to discriminate – they’re going to go forward and they’re going to upheld,” he says with a sense urgency. “Once again, we are going to find ourselves, I believe, in a situation where in many, many parts of this country, the only protection that LGBTQ people have, especially trans workers, is going to be in contracts negotiated through collective bargaining by unions.” 

“We’ve been doing this for decades, even in Texas, throughout the Deep South, places where there’s absolutely no local or statewide ordinance to protect our folks,” says Jones. “We gain that protection through the union contracts.” 

On July 27, Cleve Jones will host a Facebook live recruitment event for UNITE HERE, focused on political organizing leading up to the midterm elections at www.facebook.com/clevej

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