“This is an act of war,” said Carlos Aramayo, president of Local 26. “This is an attempt to use the pandemic and the job insecurity created by the pandemic to undermine the high wages and benefits standards that workers in this industry have fought for decades to achieve.”
Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants said in a statement: “We are working diligently with the union in search of the best solution for our employees and business, which has been significantly impacted by this pandemic. The actions taken by the hotel comply with the union contract that has been in place for years. We are hopeful that conversations with our union partners remain constructive during these very difficult and unprecedented times.”
Kimpton operates 74 hotels around the world, including two others in the Boston area: the Marlowe in Cambridge and the Onyx near Faneuil Hall, which are not unionized. A company spokeswoman did not directly respond to questions about workforce reductions at other properties but said, “This remains an isolated situation with the Nine Zero and Unite Here Local 26.”
Brookfield Properties, which owns the hotel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stephen Stern, a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant for almost 20 years, was shocked when the union informed him he was being let go exactly a year after he was furloughed. It was an “incredible” job, he said, with great health insurance and four weeks of vacation, plus 12 holidays and a week of personal time. In 2019, he made $74,000.
“I planned on retiring from that job,” he said. “I’m 53 years old. Where am I going to find work? Nobody in this field is hiring. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. For a company to do this, I’m just disgusted. I’m going to do everything in my power to fight this.”
“It’s just greed, greed, greed,” he said.
The Nine Zero is the first union hotel to permanently lay off workers during the pandemic, following terminations at the nonunion Revere Hotel Boston Common, Boston Marriott Copley Place, and the Four Seasons on Boylston Street. After intense public pushback, the Four Seasons promised staffers who were let go they’d be first in line for their jobs once business returns, but the other two properties made no such promises.
With the hotel market decimated by the pandemic, the union fears cuts will keep coming as the industry looks to reduce costs on the backs of its employees. Companies could bring in less-expensive contractors, replace workers with technology, or give guests the option to have their rooms cleaned less often, the union said, leading to fewer jobs and less stable, lower-paying work.
To try to stem the tide, the union launched a campaign last week to pressure hotels to hire back workers once business returns, calling out 30 hotels — including the Nine Zero — that have not publicly committed to doing so. Almost all the union hotels have agreed to recall their workers, but 28 major nonunion hotels have not.
“It is unconscionable to use the pandemic as an excuse to lay off these hardworking hotel employees,” City Councilors Ed Flynn and Kenzie Bok said in a statement, noting that they support statewide legislation that would allow for workers to be recalled within two years of being laid off.
Local 26 estimates that 8,000 union and nonunion hotel workers are still unemployed in the Boston area, about 85 percent of the workforce. Boston’s hotel occupancy is one of the lowest among the country’s major markets — less than 34 percent in early March, down from nearly 67 percent two years ago, according to the hospitality-data provider STR.
The Kimpton Nine Zero, in Boston’s Ladder District, underwent a $12 million renovation in 2018 to update its 190 guest rooms and event space after being purchased by Brookfield Properties, according to industry publications. The 1,065-square-foot penthouse on the 19th floor features a billiards table, love letters between John and Abigail Adams inscribed above the headboard, and a telescope to take in the view of the Public Garden and the Charles River through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Room attendant Klarita Xherimeja came to Boston from Albania eight years ago and started working at the Nine Zero soon after. “It was my first job, and it was my second home,” she said.
Xherimeja, 39, and her husband, who is also out of work, bought a house in Dedham shortly before the pandemic hit. They and their two children, ages 16 and 12, all contracted COVID earlier this year.
“This is not human,” she said, her voice raspy from crying, noting that her 16-year-old daughter offered to get a job to help the family get by.
“When you hear your kid saying that,” she said, “it’s heartbreaking.”