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Immigrants Hit by Layoffs - 2002-09-11


English Feature #7-35519 Broadcast November 5, 2001

One of the side-effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11th has been a drastic decrease in travel and tourism in the United States. This especially affects people who work in the hospitality industry - many of whom are immigrants to this country. Today on New American Voices we talk about the situation with a Washington hotel workers' union representative, as well as a hotel worker laid off from her job.

"We are experiencing right now, in my local, in our hotel division, 60 to 70 percent of the members of the hotel division on any given day are out of work, and that is in direct response to the tragedy of September 11th."

John Boardman is the Executive Secretary and Treasurer of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Union, local 25. This local has about 8000 members, about 40 to 45 percent of them immigrants, mostly from Central America, South Asia, Northern Sahara, and, most recently, Eastern Europe. The jobs that the union represents are those that traditionally have attracted newcomers with little knowledge of English and few marketable skills.

"In local 25 it's the full variety of hospitality industry jobs that you might imagine. It's the waiter who serves you your meal, and the bartender that hands you a drink across the table, maybe it's the doorman that takes your bags out of the car when you pull up to the hotel ramp. We also represent the people who make the food, the dishwashers, housekeepers, laundry workers -- essentially anything that's connected with the restaurant and hotel industry, we have members there."

John Boardman says that immigrants may be particularly vulnerable during a period of extensive lay-offs in the hospitality industry.

"While I don't have any statistical evidence right here in front of me, I think if we were to look anecdotally, immigrants are generally the newer populations in the workplace, they tend to be the newer, less senior workers -- so it's quite conceivable that workers who are immigrants would be disproportionately affected. Although I have to tell you this is so bad that we have folks who have 30, 35 years' seniority that are on lay-off for the first time ever in their careers."

Tomasa Barrantes, a member of Mr. Boardman's local 25, has been laid off after 25 years of working in Washington's hotels. Mrs. Barrantes came to the United States from El Salvador in 1975, when she was 25, and found work making salads in the Watergate Hotel's restaurant.

"When I came to working in hotel, I was doing salad girl. I working for ten years and a half in there. After that the company sell the business, I don't have benefits, it's time to change, because, you know, I was looking for benefits and a little more money. I came to the Hay-Adams Hotel in 1990, and then I'm still working over there. I'm doing salad girl there, too.

The Hay-Adams is a luxury hotel boasting Italian Renaissance decorative motifs, a wood-paneled lobby, and rooms with views of the White House, just a block away across a small park. Mrs. Barrantes liked working there.

"I like [being a] salad girl. It pay good money, now is twelve twenty-seven, is good benefits - medical insurance, dentist. I am very happy with my job. But because the business is going slow, not many people working, a lot of people are laid off."

Tomasa Barrantes was first laid off for two weeks at the end of September. Soon after she was brought back to work the Hay-Adams management announced that the hotel would be closing for renovation until March, and the entire hotel staff would be laid off.

"Well, this week I'm still working, the next week I don't know, I have to go to unemployment, and then I'm looking for a job, I don't know, it depends. The hotel say it pay benefits, like insurance, for four months. After four months, if they don't open - they're supposed to open in March, but if something happens, they cut everything."

Until the hotel reopens, Mrs. Barrantes has recourse to unemployment benefits, and the hotel will continue to provide medical, dental and eye-care insurance. The Hotel Workers' Union also tries to help its members - like Tomasa Barrantes - by providing counseling services.

"Since September 11th the activities of this local union have really taken on a totally different character. I had all our staff trained in crisis management, how to help people assess their finances, their family stability, where to assign them. We've been running about a hundred people a day through crisis intake here."

Since her children are grown and don't need her help, Mrs. Barrantes is optimistic that with the union's support and unemployment checks, she will manage until the Hay-Adams hotel reopens in the spring. However, other immigrants who have been laid off and have families to support are facing hard times. You'll meet some of them next week on this program.

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