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Laid-Off Hotel Workers Rally After Health Insurance Yanked

Above photo: Shawan Johnson, a room attendant at The Hilton Chicago, took part in a rally with other hotel workers who are demanding health insurance in the Loop, Friday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2020. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times.

‘We’ve been thrown out like yesterday’s garbage.’

“We have spent years and decades of our lives working for these companies,” said Jesus Morales, who worked as banquet server at The Drake Hotel for 33 years.

About 150 hotel workers who’d been laid off — but promised their jobs back when the hotel industry rebounds — gathered in Grant Park Friday to call on their employers to continue providing health insurance.

They are among about 7,000 Chicago hotel workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 1 who are out of work, most since March.

Their health insurance lasted until Oct. 1, and workers are now calling on hotel operators to extend benefits.

A union spokeswoman could not immediately say how long they were hoping a possible extension would last.

“I have really, really bad arthritis and only four pills left, and I have a daughter who needs her braces taken off,” said Shawan Johnson, 41, who worked turning over rooms at the Hilton Chicago for six years until she was laid off in March.

“When you work for a company for many, many years and once a pandemic hits they just say, ‘Well, forget it, no more healthcare, no more anything.’ … It’s like insult to injury,” said Johnson.

Jesus Morales, who’d worked as a banquet server at the Drake Hotel for 33 years until he lost his job in March, said he’s in a tough spot because his wife, who had brain surgery a few years ago, and daughter, who was recently in a car accident, both depend on him for health insurance.

“We have spent years and decades of our lives working for these companies, and now we’ve been thrown out like yesterday’s garbage,” he said. “They should be ashamed of how they’re treating us.”

The crowd chanted, “We deserve better!” before marching under a light drizzle several blocks around the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave.

The majority of workers represented by the union are women of color, according to Unite Here spokeswoman Sarah Lyons. The workers are, in part, room attendants, bartenders, cooks, servers, bellmen and doormen.

Their jobs are spread among dozens of hotels, but the largest chunk of them work for the Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt hotel chains, Lyons said.

“The well-being of our team members remains our highest priority, especially during these challenging times,” a Hilton spokeswoman said in an email. “Throughout the pandemic, temporary healthcare benefits have been provided to hotel employees by drawing on multi-employer health and welfare fund reserves that exist due to the financial contributions of hotel owners, Hilton, and other employers. Unfortunately, the economic impact of the pandemic does not allow these temporary benefits to be sustained indefinitely.”

The spokeswoman said Hilton hopes to bring workers back when travel resumes.

“Until then, to further assist those unable to work through no fault of their own, we have created the Hilton Workforce Resource Center to connect hotel employees with new potential work opportunities,” she said.

Representatives of Hyatt and Marriott did not immediately return requests for comment.

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