by Natalia Tylim
In March 2020 the Marriott Marquis in Times Square furloughed 1,200 workers due to COVID closures. Nine months later, in December, the corporation informed 852 non-union employees that they were permanently let go, effective March 12th. Since December, a group of the fired workers have come together to organize around saving their jobs. They have two main demands: full severance pay and City Council Right to Recall legislation that ensures workers furloughed or laid off due to coronavirus be offered their jobs back.
When Marriott Marquis workers first started pushing for right to recall laws ensuring certain workers laid off due to coronavirus were given priority in rehiring, it already been passed in Las Vegas, California and Pittsburgh. To get a law on the books in NYC, the workers held rallies and bombarded City Council events with the demand. Through those efforts, they were able to get through to Brad Landers who sits on the NYC City Council, and Brad Holyman, the Senator for the district the hotel is located in. Holyman helped pass the story along to the Attorney General who has helped them navigate the severance dynamics.
Marriott is automatically enrolling all the workers in severance, offering them only the flexibility of choosing a lump sum or installment payments. The company is also claiming that their COBRA coverage to acceptance of those severance terms even though, legally, the American Relief Protection Act mandates that free COBRA to laid off workers be extended through September. This potentially illegal maneuver on the corporation’s part coerced workers to accept a low payout, since, once terms are accepted, the workers are voluntarily foregoing any right to return to their jobs.
Many Marriott Marquis workers still want to go back to their jobs, but the company wants to replace them with lower paid workers who receive fewer benefits, planning to outsource much of their food and beverage operation to a subcontractor. This group of non-union workers are organizing to pass right of recall legislation in New York City, which in this case would grant them protections similar to what many union contracts stipulate. Marriott is relying on the fact that the workers don’t know what they are entitled to and cannot find a way out of the options they are being offered. In the face of that, Marriott workers have come together to organize for what they deserve.
Natalia Tylim and an Anonymous Service Industry Worker conducted the following interview for The DIsh with three laid-off Marriott Marquis workers from the hotel restaurant, The View, who are leading this organizing effort. Brian Richards (33 years on the job), Pete Dorton (16 years on the job) and Asyah Azize (8 years on the job) talk about their struggle as non-union hotel restaurant workers and the lessons they have learned from the experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Natalia Tylim: Give us a little background on how this organizing came together and how you came to be involved.
Brian Richards: [In December] I got a termination letter. In New York, most outlets, hotels, and hotel restaurants are union. But we aren’t, Marriott has made a conscious effort to keep us from being union from day one. I took a lie detector test when I got the job back in the ‘80s [saying that I didn’t work for a union]. At the Mariott Marquis, every compensation decision, every insurance decision has always met or exceeded the union [rate]. So when I heard that they were going to close the restaurant I work at, it’s called The View, it’s a revolving restaurant in Times Square, I wanted to make sure that they were going to continue to follow union procedures, like they had promised. I was a little hesitant because I know that now it’s no longer in their vested interest to do so because it would get more expensive for them and they don’t need us anymore. We realized quickly that they were not going to follow union procedures and so we organized a group to try to protect our jobs. We tried to get a representative from every department. We built a really functioning core group of about 10 people.
Asyah Azize: When we were first furloughed I started helping coworkers out with unemployment problems that they were having. I took care of my fellow kitchen people, because everybody’s like 60 plus and couldn’t figure out how to file. In March, everybody still thought they were going back to their jobs. Now, December happens. You have no more job. What are you going to do? I mean, like, what are these people going to do if they can’t even do the unemployment thing? How the hell do you expect them to go back into the job market? A lot of them don’t have a resume. This is the only thing that they’ve ever done in their entire life. A lot of people were there 20 plus, 35 plus years. That’s my age! So Brian came around, and brought us together and called the first rally and we got organized from there. So I came into that because I was in charge of my little group. And because I’ve worked in lots of different departments in the hotel before settling at The View, which is my home, it was easier for me to reach everyone else. So that’s how I came into this whole little Brady bunch group.
Pete Dorton: When all this started, Brian reached out to me and I came on board. We decided that we would just bombard City Council and try to find somebody to get [right of recall] legislation brought forward. Finally we were able to reach out to Brad Lander on a town hall and we found out that he had started some type of draft about right to recall. We all jumped on the town hall and bombarded him with questions. Afterwards his chief of staff reached out to me about getting legislation going, and he was able to get it introduced and we held a press conference in Times Square to introduce the right to recall legislation.
Anonymous: Talk a little bit about how you came to the demands that you did.
Brian Richards: When we sat down to figure out what we wanted to achieve there were two primary targets. One was a proper union severance. We were aware that when Marriott closed down room service in the past, it mirrored the union severance package. I met with the general manager within a week of our termination and he told me what we’re going to get, he said it was going to be capped off at 10 years, one week[‘s pay] per year, which is a fraction of what I felt I personally with 32 years of service should receive. We want severance and the right to recall. And we had different strategies for both of them. In our case, we’re dealing with a massive corporation, a very, very successful, very, very rich, barely-impacted-by-COVID corporation. We came across a lawyer who was perfect for us. And so it became the lawyer versus lawyer. And Marriott has $4,000 an hour lawyers who are really elite, really arrogant, really, really good at fighting us to get us out of there as cheaply as possible and to protect Marriott, to prevent them from paying anything more than they intended to. I think without the Attorney General backing us, [the severance part of it] would probably not have gone anywhere.
Right to Recall was more of a city council initiative. We tried to lobby City Council. We had the rallies with the demand being Right to Recall.
Anonymous: I know there’s been a lot of different aspects to this organizing – back of house, front of house, getting in touch with people, different departments. What was it like bringing everybody together? And where are people at? Would people prefer the severance or would they prefer their jobs back?
Asyah Azize: It was a hot, hot mess in the beginning. Because even though we’re all employees of the same hotel, everybody’s got their little clique, their little group and their little family. So unless you’ve got someone on board that knew all of them, they just don’t trust you, don’t want to give you their information. It was a struggle in the beginning just to get these people’s information, because they’re thinking that they’re going back to work. They’re thinking that this is an option for them. They weren’t getting, “No, you’re not going back to work. You don’t have your job, they’re outsourcing.” And then they just thought right to recall would pass and we’ll all go back and it’s all going to be the same.
A lot of the younger workers just want to go back to work, and a lot of the older people are like, ‘well, screw this crap. I’ve been home for so long. I just want my [severance] money.’ But they know that they’re entitled to so much more because they put so much time and effort. Literally these people sacrificed their lives and probably marriages and relationships with their kids to work here, to provide for their families. And now they have nothing. It’s like you just got kicked out of your second – and maybe only – family. You have a lot of people that are impatient but we can only do so much, and you also need to take initiative and help us reach out. This hotel has so many immigrants and the communication with people whose English isn’t that great. I get texts and calls in the middle of the night, people are scared and they have a reason to be, but Google translate can only work so much.
Pete Dorton: Last night, I received a phone call at nine o’clock at night from somebody that was a concierge and she’d been there for 28 years. She was thanking us for the hard work and the organizing, but she still didn’t quite understand that she wasn’t going back. And she said, she’s sitting there writing a letter begging for them to bring us back and she was crying and telling me this and it broke my heart. I was trying to explain things. You know, you want to give them hope, but you also, you have to face the reality that we probably won’t be going back unless this right of recall legislation goes through. It’s heartbreaking to get those phone calls. And I know I’m not the only one that’s received them. I think we have organized over 550 people, which was pretty impressive.
Asyah Azize: Just to add to that, I had someone asking me to find out from human resources when we’re coming back because the mayor and the governor said that they’re opening up New York in July. So everybody thinks because New York is opening up that they’re getting their jobs back. Like it’s an automatic thing.
Anonymous: Before all of this, what were your experiences like working at Marriott? It sounds like you liked the job generally speaking?
Pete Dorton: Oh, we loved the job. I had a great time there.
Brian Richards: It’s a unique job because the restaurant’s in Times Square, it’s a tourist place. You get New Yorkers bringing relatives in for special occasions. You end up really bonding with these people in a really condensed period of time helping them on their vacation. I would like to think that when they go back to their homes, back to their lives, that they would remember the time they spent with us because generally it’s a big event for them.
Pete Dorton: Well, basically we were ambassadors for New York City. We told them the shows to go see and what to not see and gave them opinions on different restaurants, and nightlife and museums. And we developed relationships with a lot of the repeat guests. In 16 years, I have so many friends that I’ve gone and stayed at their homes in Europe just from meeting these people at this job. We love the job and we were all really good at what we did and that’s what’s sad. Now they’re going to bring in cheaper labor and inexperienced people that don’t really know what’s going on and it’s going to be really detrimental to the hotel in my opinion.
Anonymous: And what about back of house folks? What’s their experience like working there?
Asyah Azize: I remember for brunch, I started making Mickey Mouse pancakes for some kids and sure enough, like I saw that guy probably five times in the time that I was there. And he was like, “you know, I could stay wherever I wanted to, but I come back because you guys treat me like I’m family.” And that’s always the thing that was ingrained in us. Treat your guests like family and we’ll treat the employees like family too.
Pete Dorton: That’s the saddest part, for years that we worked there and even before I worked there, people wanted to get the union in and Marriott was very adamant about keeping the union out. They would have those union busting meetings where we’d have to go to these mandatory meetings and sit there and listen to how bad the union was for us. And then they would say, ‘oh, we’re taking care of you better than the union would. And we’re paying you comparable or better wages than the neighboring hotels.’ And then, when all this went down, there’s an article that the HTC had posted about how the Food and Beverage department was being sacrificed, and the remaining housekeepers were able to get a union because they were scared of what happened to us. So now they have won union representation and we’re out in the cold and there’s no support for us.
Anonymous: I’ve worked in hospitality for 10 years, and I know there’s those trainings where you really drink the Kool-Aid about the corporation and how they are going to take care of you. And it sounds like you all had a pretty good experience and sort of believed that when you first started working there.
How has this shifted your impression of who Marriott is to you and how they’re going to take care of you?
Brian Richards: I met David Marriott. And honestly believed that Marriott was just a different corporation. You hear all these things about corporations being a source of evil, that maximizing shareholder profit is their only purpose. But I always thought I worked at a different kind. They always said the key to Marriott’s success was, we take care of our employees, they take care of our customers, and our customers return. Maybe it was naive at the time, but I also happened to believe it. I changed my opinion because I realized that they used to tell us that it’s a different corporation, that they have a different philosophy, but it’s just kind of like lacquer on top that was convenient for them to say when it was in their interest, but now it’s no longer beneficial to them. So that just went out the window and it is just: get rid of them as cheaply as possible. So I have had a substantial transformation in my understanding of the company I used to work for.
Pete Dorton: Also we used to have employee appreciation parties all the time. Employee appreciation week. One year, in 2006 or 2007, Rihanna came and did a concert for us for an employee appreciation week. They lavished us with all these perks and then they also gave us a supplemental $15 a week in our paychecks for our retirement for no reason. And then it just started getting whittled away little by little. I think it was when Marriott’s international [operations] split and they have Host company now… and it’s just been detrimental ever since then.
Anonymous: I think Natalia working at a smaller restaurant and me working at a smaller hotel, employer appreciation is closer to like a pizza party. You know what I mean?
Natalia Tylim: I might actually feel appreciated if I got a Rihanna concert!
Asyah Azize: We would also get gift cards and trips to different Marriott locations. We had Christmas parties and they would be giving out tech gift cards and laptops. They would have us do a Ted Talk on how to make a mixed drink and you would get an extra $150 on your paycheck for that. And they had like that five-year and ten-year incentives to make you feel that you’re appreciated and wanted. It all went downhill when they started doing the whole “fresh bites” concept. I was in room dining and it went from table side with plates, to these black boxes where we’re just cooking food and reheating them in this magic toaster oven and sending it up to people. It was so impersonal and they found every little way to cut corners around that time. You can see it, because that was the first time they got rid of like an entire department and it became less about humans and more about, well, how can I make more money? But you still had that hope. We still had a job. We were still a family. And then [Covid] happens and you’re like “Well where the hell? Where’s the family? Where is the family in any of this crap?”
Pete Dorton: I’ve worked in many restaurants, small mom and pop restaurants especially, before I started at Marriott. And I remember we didn’t have the protections at those mom and pop restaurants and you could be working and the owner could just look at you funny and be like “I don’t like them, they’re done.” And they would fire you at the drop of a hat. So working for Marriott was such a great relief of like, wow, we have protection, even though we really didn’t have that protection, it was a false sense of security. So I don’t want us to come across as sounding ungrateful because we were able to have benefits, healthcare and a lot of mom and pop restaurant workers don’t have that, and it should be mandatory for everybody to have health insurance, especially restaurant workers, because we are the heart and soul of New York along with the theater, and most of us are actors and performers. So, you know, without us, the city would be nothing.
Natalia Tylim: One of the things that I’m thinking about listening to you all is what Naomi Klein talks about, about the “shock doctrine”, where a crisis is used as an opportunity to just completely dismantle any semblance of workers rights. We were talking before we started this meeting about independent small restaurants having a hiring crisis. There’s like a ‘labor shortage’ because nobody wants to work in them. You had a much more stable job in a lot of ways, those jobs are being completely dismantled and you have all these precarious jobs that people are reluctant to take for all kinds of reasons. It raises the question of how are we going to make sure that those jobs become more stable?
Pete Dorton: Well, it’s all about protection, for everyone, from mom and pop restaurants to corporations, and union or not, small restaurants, they need those protections. You guys know what it’s like to work at a small restaurant and have these crazy shifts, you do triples and you don’t get paid overtime. At the end of the day, you have money in your pocket from your tips, and the owners say, oh, look, how much money you made, but they didn’t pay it to me. You know, I was there to market your restaurant and the tips were people being grateful for my service. It’s really sad all the way around because I have so many friends that are out of work that are mom and pop restaurant workers, and nobody’s having a chance to go back yet. And now that we’re opening, what’s going to happen? Especially these big corporations, [they’ve] just thrown us out to fend for ourselves.
Natalia Tylim: It is interesting this idea of having stability on the job, it’s counterintuitive in the moment, but actually sometimes it’s worth more than a higher wage and we shouldn’t have to choose between those two things.
Pete Dorton: For years, if you went into a restaurant and you trailed and it was a mom and pop restaurant, and if it was a fit, you knew it was a fit. And if not, you just went to the next place and you found the perfect fit for you. And sometimes the money wasn’t that great, but the job was nice and you trusted the people and you felt good. So it was a trade-off and it shouldn’t be a trade-off. We should all be earning our worth, no matter what. And I would say that was the biggest demand of our fight, just treat us fairly. That’s all we’re asking. We are loyal to the company. We are loyal to these mom and pop restaurants that we work in. Where is our loyalty back? The right to recall opens up so many opportunities for everybody that has run up against terminations during the pandemic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really apply to the small mom and pop restaurants, once again, and it should, but you know, one step at a time.
Anonymous: The bill has a minimum of $5 million in gross receipts [for a company to be covered under the law], right?
Pete Dorton: Yes, $5 million and more than 50 employees.
Anonymous: As Natalia said, a lot of restaurant workers in smaller restaurants, or even medium-sized restaurants have a very different experience than those of us who work in these hotels. There’s a lot of money in hotels and the restaurant sometimes is just there to attract the guests so they pay for the hotel rooms. And so it’s a lot harder for them to close. They sort of have to treat you better, or there’s incentive at least for them to treat you better particularly if they’re looking over their shoulder at the union possibly coming in.
So, what are your next steps in terms of pushing for the right to recall or pushing for the severance? And can one of you talk a little bit about how the press got a hold of this probe that the state attorney general was doing?
Pete Dorton: Corey Johnson is doing the agenda for this Civil Service & Labor Committee and I’m going to testify, and just ask “What’s happening?” …So that is one route. We are in constant communication and every day, all of us are sending emails and phone calls to every city council member saying, please help us pass right to recall once it’s brought up. This doesn’t only affect hotels and restaurants and clubs. It’s bars. It’s the stadium workers. It’s the Broadway bartenders. I mean, there’s a lot of people it covers. Musicians. So if the right to recall would go through, that’d be great. California has made it a state law, which is amazing. New York City is a progressive city; why do we not have this after Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, all these cities are leading it? Right to recall is something that we are fighting until the end.
We are pushing, and we need so much support from everybody and unfortunately we’re just not getting enough press. We have had a CNBC, they did a little blurb because we are having trouble with the ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act to sign up for COBRA. And that’s a whole other issue. We have been fighting that and we still don’t have anything in writing from the corporation saying that we have COBRA. And I myself have a pacemaker defibrillator and I’m not going to my doctor. And a lot of my coworkers are not going to the doctor because they can’t afford to get a bill …Our lawyer will probably be discussing things with their lawyers. And then, the attorney general, hopefully, there might be an investigation, who knows?
Copley Marriott in Boston, they’re actually boycotting the Marriott. So I was able to this morning reach out to one of the union people there and now I’m in contact with them. So we’re trying to get together, compare notes and try to fight this together. It’s just a lot of legwork and honestly, Asyah and Brian can tell you, I mean, this is like a full-time job for us and we’re not getting paid. You know, thank God for our unemployment, but I mean, it’s crazy how nine people can go up against a corporation like this in such a short amount of time and see the results that we’re getting, but it’s still not enough.
Asyah Azize: Every system that we have at this point is just not working whatsoever. You know, every single government service, it’s like nothing works and this pandemic has shown people that things don’t work. They need to be changed. They need to be fixed.
Pete Dorton: And the thing is, we all have careers as restaurant workers or hotel workers. These are actual careers. You know, people think we’re just actors and it’s a temporary job. No, we treat these as careers and maybe it’s a privileged thing that we think that we have a career and how can we go from a career to Medicaid?…See, with myself, I have a defibrillator pacemaker and I have a certain doctor that I’ve been with since 2004 and I cannot get rid of him because he knows me and he knows my condition and that’s why my Cobra is so important. And then after the ARPA, September 30th, I’m going to be without health insurance. And so what am I going to do then? I want to sign up for something, but what are our options? Honestly, I feel like I’m a law student now I’ve learned so much stuff and, and I want to run for city council now. I’m really thinking about it because it’s just amazing the stuff that needs to be done for the city.
Asyah Azize: I know how to do campaign work now.
Pete Dorton: You know, the one thing that I would say is out of all of this we have found that a lot of people look at restaurant workers or hotel workers as uneducated, and maybe not as smart as we should be, and so maybe [the boss] could get away with things. And now I’m finding, you know, there’s nights when we’ve all been standing around in the restaurant and complaining about this or that. But I think now we’ve realized you have to organize, you have to stick together, you have to stand up and say, no, this isn’t right. And I do have a voice…. And I’m blown away at my coworkers, you know, like they are just surprising me more and more, daily. And I think that’s something that we should all learn from this, that even in the small mom and pop restaurants, get together, stand up for yourself and just say no, we’re not going to do this anymore. You know, we have rights, we have a voice. And I think that might bring a little more respect to all of us.