Hospitality workers, such as room cleaners in high-rise hotels, sports stadium kitchen staff and tech campus baristas, have been left behind by the government’s pandemic recovery efforts. These workers, who are disproportionately immigrants, women and people of color comprise the membership of UNITE HERE! Local 8, the labor union representing workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry of the Northwest region.
“Our members were the first to lose their jobs and last in line to get them back,” says Eunice How, a community organizer for Local 8. During the first shutdown of the pandemic over 90% of members lost work. Many went over a year before getting a call back.
After losing their jobs, thousands of Local 8 members ran into issues with the Washington state unemployment insurance (UI) claims system. Designed to root out false information and swamped with claims, the UI system failed many workers.
“We had members going up to 13 weeks without getting any money,” says Amy Leong, community coordinator for the Seattle chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), a partnering organization that represents Asian workers and other workers of color, including many members of Local 8.
When the lockdown began, Local 8 responded to clear signals that members were falling between the cracks of the unemployment system by forming a multilingual assistance hotline. A group of union staff, members, and volunteers took shifts talking through challenges that hospitality workers faced while weathering the loss of their jobs. They provided assistance in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese, supporting not just union members, but any worker calling in need of assistance.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people that called were just trying to navigate the unemployment system,” explains Kushay How, a volunteer operator offering interpretation for speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese, and the mother of Eunice. “As someone who is educated, my first degree is computer science, and even I find it difficult. So how much more difficult is it for those who don’t even understand English?”
The volunteers eventually learned the ins and outs of the UI system, creating a team to deal with exceptionally difficult cases. ”’Unemployment Special Ops’ is what we call it,” laughs Amy. She’s been consistently volunteering with the hotline through the pandemic. “We work to escalate cases and get them heard.”
With the help of the hotline, these workers learned to advocate for themselves and claim the benefits to which they were entitled. Throughout the last 18 months, the small group of hotline volunteers helped workers claim over $650,000 in UI compensation.
However, the workers’ challenges didn’t end there; many families were still struggling to meet their basic needs. “This whole thing is uncharted territory. I can tell you with the calls coming in—that the trends, they change,” says Kushay.
Within months, the hotline began connecting workers with food banks, mutual aid networks, and rental and utility assistance. The volunteers even trained with King County Crisis Connections to learn how to handle callers in distress.
“When people call, the first thing we have to do is to show or to let them know they are not alone.” Kushay explains. She speaks with a gentle deliberateness and has allayed many callers in crisis. ”When a human calls and hears another human voice, that’s just a relief.”
In late 2020, challenges remained for many members, such as disqualifications for immigrant families to access UI and the loss of income from multiple jobs. In response, Local 8 fundraised to provide families with direct financial assistance through a “Hardship Fund”. Individuals and organizations like the Seattle Foundation, Social Justice Fund NW and the Puget Sound Labor Agency supported. After several months, the hotline volunteers helped distribute an additional $195,000 to hospitality workers.
The next chapter of the hotline came in early 2021, as vaccines became more widely available. The crew of volunteers trained up in partnership with the City of Seattle and African Americans Reach and Teach Health (with the help of Nikkita Oliver), spending a majority of their calls scheduling vaccination appointments, eventually signing up over 100 individuals.
Then, as hotels, stadiums and tech campus cafeterias began opening up, the calls the volunteers received changed once more. Many callers wanted to learn where to search for new jobs, and others were reporting problems with their employers upon returning—issues that the union at large focuses on.
“With the reality that a lot of hospitality locations have either closed or won’t recover to 100% staffing like before,” says Eunice, “how do we get people back to work with health and safety standards in place and fight for those—but also how do we help people who want to find another job in the hospitality industry in another union shop?”
Alongside the hotline, Local 8 has been fighting on other fronts—advocating for policies and pushing large employers to honor the “recall rights” of employees to safely return to their positions without losing the pay, benefits or hours they earned. Last winter, the Union hosted an “Unemployed Hospitality Worker Town Hall,” inviting a dozen elected officials at the City, Local, and Federal levels; during the event workers shared their stories and demanded action on legislation to extend insurance coverage and eviction protection. The international union is currently petitioning Hilton Hotels against dangerous job cuts.
This last year and half has shown that UNITE HERE! Local 8 has a unique set of priorities. Unions are not often known for providing direct services to the broader community. “At our core, UNITE HERE! is a social justice labor union centered on racial justice and leading with lifting up the folks who are most impacted,” explains Eunice, “If you’re asking someone to come to a picket line and mobilize for their contract campaign but they can’t afford to feed their children that night, the member won’t come to the picket line because they’re out there looking for a food bank to feed their kids.” Building power takes investment and care at every level, and according to Eunice and the volunteers, it starts with putting out a line and listening.
As of now, the hotline has assisted nearly 1,200 callers. They plan to continue to answer calls to help hospitality workers navigate future challenges.
“These systems, society, it’s not built to include or support our membership, or people like us,” Eunices states, her voice firm. “So we have to have the spirit and motivation to fight back and step up and empower each other—to get what we deserve with dignity and respect.”