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By Jacquie Lee
Hotel employees typically get a name tag and an ID badge on their first day of work. Now, in northern New Jersey, they’ll get a voter registration form, too.
Roughly 3,500 workers in more than 40 hotels across northern New Jersey are now covered by a master agreement organized by the Hotel Trades Council, an affiliate of UNITE HERE. Some of the biggest hotel chains are parties to the contract, among them Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and InterContinental Hotels Group.
The five-year pact provides workers with annual raises of $1 an hour on average and ensures that they will make at least $1.50 more than the state minimum wage. The current hourly minimum wage in the Garden State is $8.60.
The deal is unusual in that it also highlights some of the hotel industry’s biggest problems, such as sexual harassment and immigrant workers’ persistent fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it encourages workers to exercise their right to vote by making registration convenient and paying workers for time spent going to the polls on Election Day.
“Oftentimes we find that workers in certain industries can’t afford to miss work when they need to vote and often don’t know where to go to register to vote,” Richard Maroko, executive vice president and general counsel for the Hotel Trades Council’s New Jersey branch, told Bloomberg Law.
This new agreement gives workers four hours of paid time off to vote and requires all hotels to have on-site voter registration to ensure that “hotel workers’ political voice will be amplified so legislators will be able to hear their concerns,” he said.
Workers’ concerns were already on New Jersey politicians’ radar, it seems. Both Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D) attended an April 16 event hosted by the trades council to publicize the contract.
“No New Jersey resident working full time should be living in poverty,” Murphy said in a statement sent to Bloomberg Law. “I look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure all working New Jerseyans earn a living wage.”
Baraka’s office didn’t provide a comment on the deal.
One business group approved of the industry-specific provisions in this contract because “that is the express purpose of collective bargaining,” Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said. Governments shouldn’t create one-size-fits-all worker mandates because skill sets vary from industry to industry, he said.
“This is why NJBIA has been advancing an effort for a broader discussion regarding minimum wage as one that discusses how to lift the skill set of a low wage earner which in turn will naturally lift their wages verses artificially dictating the value of a particular job,” Siekerka said.
Murphy’s platform includes raising the minimum wage in New Jersey to $15 an hour.
As membership declines nationwide, unions are looking for ways to bolster their diminishing political clout.
“One major role unions play is to advocate for public policies that benefit their members and workers more generally,” Susan Schurman, a labor professor at Rutgers University, said. “So unions hope to persuade their members to vote for candidates that support those policies and obtaining a time-off-to-vote provision in contracts is part of this.”
Language about voting and voter registration has popped up in union contracts before, but this agreement appears to be the most worker-friendly. The on-site voter registration, paired with four hours of paid time off to vote, is the most generous of provisions found in contract data compiled and analyzed by Bloomberg Law.
Clout is critical in bargaining, Maroko said. There was no union presence in Jersey City when the trades council first expanded to the northern part of the state seven years ago, he said. Now, about 75 percent of hotel workers in the area fall under the trades council’s union contract.
“It’s the rising tide that will lift all ships,” Maroko said.
Housekeepers will get panic buttons to use if a guest sexually harasses or otherwise threatens them. The button alerts hotel security to the worker’s location. The hotel is required to respond “promptly and adequately,” but no specific action is spelled out in the contract language.
The buttons have already popped up in Chicago, Seattle, and New York following a UNITE HERE study that found the vast majority of hotel housekeepers say they have been subject to sexual harassment on the job.
Businesses are required to check that a job applicant is authorized to work in the U.S., but the hotels agreed in the pact not to give additional information to ICE. That provision is especially important in this industry, which has a large immigrant workforce, Maroko said.
The Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, and UNITE HERE have been using union contracts to protect immigrant workers for years, but UNITE HERE has been a “trailblazer” on the issue, said Janice Fine, who teaches a course on unions and immigration policy at Rutgers.
“Employers through the union and through contract negotiations understand what their rights are and how to protect workers,” Fine told Bloomberg Law. For example, an employer can turn an ICE agent away if the agent doesn’t have a warrant to search work areas not accessible to the general public, she said.
These provisions will prove to be especially important as immigration continues to be at the forefront of political debate and the federal government doubles down on rooting out undocumented workers.
An InterContinental representative said the pact “enables our hotels in the region whose employees are members to continue to deliver excellent service and hospitality to our guests.”
Representatives from the other hotels didn’t respond to requests for comment on the deal.
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