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HERE for now

Hotel, restaurant employees take huge hit from recession



October was the worst month for employment in America in 20 years. More people lost their jobs last month (415,000) than in any single month since 1980. Nearly 5.5 percent of Americans, or 7.7 million people, are now unemployed.

With the Sept. 11 terrorist attack hastening the economy’s decline and discouraging tourism and air travel, hospitality workers have been the hardest hit. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) has seen one-third of its nationwide membership (more than 100,000 people) laid off since Sept. 11. According to the AFL-CIO, hospitality has lost more jobs than any other sector of the economy. While Montana’s hotel, restaurant, and other tourism workers have been affected along with their peers across the country, those in Missoula have been relatively insulated, says Jacquie Helt, president of statewide HERE Local 427 and a vice-president of the Montana AFL-CIO.

“The impact in Missoula to our union businesses has been really minimal, and part of that is there’s a big draw to the University community,” Helt says. “We have a major state school in our city. It certainly contributes to the infrastructure, people are still coming to Griz games and that sort of thing.” That said, workers in tourist destinations like Kalispell, Butte, and the Flathead Valley are not faring so well, she says.

That does not mean the picture for workers in Missoula is entirely rosy, either. Helt cautions that some businesses have been drastically cutting wages, hours, and benefits.

“One of the things we’re really suffering from here in Montana is not even specific laid-off workers, but people who are starting to be seriously underemployed,” she says. These workers “are still technically job-attached and not laid off, but because business has plummeted they’re not getting anywhere near the hours of work that they used to.” As air travel slumps, airport workers have seen their once vibrant workplaces become ghost towns. HERE has a large contingent of airport dining service employees. “Anyone who’s connected with airline service in any way is hurting,” says Coelleen Pierce, a dining room employee at Logan International Airport in Billings. After several airlines cut back on in-flight food service, the flight kitchen at the airport was closed two weeks ago. Some of the employees were reassigned, but others lost their jobs.

Pierce, a 30-year union member, cannot remember a time when workers were so anxious.

“This is the worst it’s ever been up there. People are just scared to fly,” she says.

In Washington, lawmakers are working to iron out an economic stimulus package that union officials hope will address the needs of laid off workers. President Bush has demanded the package be completed by Nov. 30.

The U.S. House of Representatives already passed its stimulus plan, a bill comprised mainly of tax cuts. The Senate is debating its own bill, including a proposal by Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“It’s a temporary, short-term shot in the arm to get the economy moving again, get workers back to work, business back to work, and help farmers and ranchers stay on the ranch,” says Baucus’ Communications Director Bill Lombardi.

Baucus’ proposal includes tax cuts for individuals and businesses, as well as assistance for the unemployed. The plan also includes $16 billion to increase and extend unemployment insurance benefits. It would spend $17 billion to provide a subsidy for laid-off workers to buy health insurance for up to a year. The health insurance provision is the top priority of Montana’s unions, says Helt. Laid-off service industry workers must use the majority of their unemployment benefits to maintain their health coverage, she says.

Added to the mix of woes for HERE workers is the fact that hospitality industry draws the largest number of new immigrants and single mothers of any sector. “For a number of years they’ve been hearing ‘go to work, go to work,’” Helt says. “Well, people went to work and now there is no safety net. People in these industries are for the most part a paycheck away.” President Bush has advocated nearly $3 billion in direct aid to the unemployed. Sen. Charles Grassley (R–Iowa), the ranking minority member on the Finance Committee, has proposed an alternative bill to Baucus’ that is in line with Bush’s proposals. Bush, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and some Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to compromise, though. According to published accounts, they may be open to an aid package larger than Bush’s $3 billion but smaller than the amount in Baucus’ proposal. Grassley said at a finance committee hearing in October that the best stimulus package would rely on “time-tested business incentives, like raising the expensing amount for small business.” Any stimulus greater than $50 billion, Grassley warned, could send the economy into deficit spending. Baucus’ proposal totals $70 billion.

Baucus has been working with the White House, Secretary O’Neill, Sen. Grassley, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, House Ways and Means Committee member Charles Rangel (D–N.Y.), and labor leaders at home and across the country, Lombardi says, adding, “[Baucus] is working as hard as he can.”

What are local labor leaders’ expectations for any compromise likely to result from all of this congressional wrangling?

“Cautiously optimistic,” says Helt.

Pierce is optimistic, too. She campaigned for Al Gore last year and she “wouldn’t work any place that wasn’t union,” but she thinks President Bush is “doing a wonderful job with the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

At Logan Airport, meanwhile, a different sort of stimulus effort is underway. New security rules that made people park far away from the airport entrance were keeping locals from eating at airport restaurants. The airport began a shuttle service, and that has helped business pick up again, Pierce says. Discount ticket prices are also drawing more passengers, she adds.

On Saturday, HERE is sponsoring a party at the Skyview Terrace at Logan Airport. Oldies will be played and prime rib will be served. “The union and the city are really trying to help us, but with people not flying the airport itself is hurting,” Pierce says. “We’re asking people and union members to come up and be customers and show solidarity.”

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