The hotel business in Washington has largely bounced back since Sept. 11, 2001, argue some of the 3,800 hotel workers threatening a strike, but not for them.
That perception is shaping negotiations this week between 14 major District hotels and their employees, members of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.
"Things are back to normal, but we aren't benefiting," said Bruce Banks, a 27-year veteran of the room-service operation at the Hilton Washington & Towers who was laid off for nearly a month after the terrorist attacks and had to borrow money from family members to pay his bills.
Banks and other union workers interviewed yesterday said that after a tumultuous three years, hotels have refused to increase staffing to accommodate crowds of visitors, forcing employees to work harder without additional pay.
Hotel executives argue that business remains mixed and that payroll costs have risen 14 percent over the last three years because of rising health care costs.
"We've been trying to bring up staffing levels to meet business demand," said Frank Otero, chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington and general manager of the Hilton Washington & Towers. "We were pleasantly surprised at how business picked up this spring, and we've been trying to hire."
The contract covering employees at 14 major hotels expires at midnight tonight, and union members have authorized their leaders to call a strike if they decide it's necessary. The two sides reported only mixed progress in discussions yesterday on work-quality issues. Other key elements of a contract -- pay and benefits and the length of an agreement -- had yet to be taken up.
Also yesterday, hotel workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, whose contracts have already expired, voted to authorize a strike. The national hotel workers union Unite Here said the coordinated moves were an effort to gain leverage in negotiations with major hotel chains by raising the prospect of a walkout in several major cities at once.
Outside Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where the negotiations have been taking place, union members said conditions on the job have worsened since their last contract was signed three years ago.
To Eva Johnson, a 49-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who has cooked room-service meals at the Marriott Wardman Park for a decade, the little things make a difference.
"It's very tough," she said. "The supervisors do what they want to do. There's no respect." They change work schedules at the last minute, making it hard to plan ahead, she said. The $10 co-payments for each trip to the doctor she must pay under the current contract are a serious burden. "That's a lot of money to me," she said. And she thinks it particularly important that the new contract be for two years, instead of three, so that the union gets a shot at a better deal in 2006.
"If we have to strike to get these things, I'm ready for it," she said.
The hotel business provides precious job opportunities, with decent pay and full health benefits, to District workers without advanced education. Under the contract about to expire, employees who do not receive tips make a minimum of $13 an hour. Workers in the industry are disproportionately immigrants, many on the cusp of middle-class incomes.
Gaethin Sabbat, a waiter at the restaurant in the Capital Hilton, said that to handle more business without hiring more staff members, managers have asked waiters to bus tables in addition to their regular tasks. "If someone wanted to be a busboy, they would have applied to be a busboy," he said.
His colleague Stephanie Smith, a telephone operator at the hotel, said her duties have been expanded to include taking reservations and helping with travel arrangements.
Shirley Wilkins, a 55-year-old District Heights resident who is an attendant in the employee cafeteria at the Omni Shoreham, said managers often dress down lower-level workers who are afraid of losing their jobs. "When you're living paycheck to paycheck, it's really hard to miss a paycheck," she said.
A strike or lockout would directly affect only the 14 District hotels negotiating a new contract, which includes the five largest in town and about 28 percent of the hotel rooms in the city. Hotel executives say they could remain open even in a strike, with managers making beds and delivering room service.
Another 22 D.C. hotels are unionized and would use any contract as the model for the contract covering their 1,200 employees. But under the terms of their arrangement with the union, they would not be affected by any strike or lockout that results from the negotiations. In total, 37 percent of the hotel rooms in the city are in union facilities. All but two of the hotels in the Washington suburbs, the Sheraton Premiere at Tysons Corner and the Hilton Crystal City, are non-union.