HTC, Local 6 and UNITE HERE Join in Relief Effort in Puerto Rico

The Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto rico, was virtually closed down by Hurricane Maria.

After Hurricane Maria rampaged across Puerto Rico on September 20, leaving an unimaginable trail of destruction, HTC, Local 6 and UNITE HERE joined in a relief effort to assist members of the hotel union there, Local 610.

Weeks after the hurricane, much of the island and its 3.5 million American citizens were still without power. This caused a virtual end to tourism and the closing or mass reduction in operations of the hotels that employ members of Local 610.

Problems on the island were multiplied by the slow response of officials, the lack of drinking water and the rampant mosquito infestation caused by pools of rancid, standing water. Communication and transportation were difficult if not non-existent. There were no working traffic lights, cell phone signals were weak and most roads were impassable. With conditions like these, many residents of Puerto Rico lost their jobs and many others had no access to cash to buy the few supplies left in supermarkets, where there were very long lines.

HTC Vice President Geroge Padilla and Assistant Director of Organizing Arisha Sierra-Blas pictured with UNITE-HERE Local 610 President Jason Rivera and Local 610 member Ernesto Middlehoff and his children.

“My people, American citizens, are suffering and dying,” HTC Assistant Director of Organizing Arisha Sierra-Blas wrote in a memo to Peter Ward. “The weak infrastructure and the lack of funds make Puerto Rico’s future seem hopeless if not for organizations like ours, which has rolled up its sleeves and tangibly helped over 1,200 families.”

Three weeks after the hurricane, the Caribe Hilton had opened only 80 out of its 917 rooms and the Condado Plaza only 50 out of 571—less than 10% of total rooms in each hotel—and the El San Juan was still struggling to open just 50 rooms to the public.

Local 6 Business Agent Nick Ruiz directing a line of Local 610 members, grateful to receive aid following Hurricane Maria.

HTC Vice President George Padilla negotiated 45 days of pay for Caribe Hilton and Condado Plaza workers. Healthcare coverage until the end of the year was negotiated for employees of all three hotels. It was also agreed that the workers would be able to liquidate vacation days and sick days. The union also demanded that management require the subcontracting companies to hire Local 610 members first for debris-cleaning and restoration of the hotels, at wage rates comparable to union contract standards.

HTC Organizer Marcela Villacob working with Local 610 Secretary-Treasurer Mildred Vazquez in Puerto Rico.

All HTC and Local 6 members should be proud to know that our union coordinated an economic relief effort that reached 1,200 members and hundreds of their dependents. On Wednesday, October 11th, staff members journeyed to Puerto Rico for a week, led by Padilla and Sierra-Blas, both of whom are Puerto Rican. At the same time, ten union staff members in New York were making calls, sending texts, and trying to spread the word to as many Local 610 members as possible that relief checks would be distributed.

Check distribution began on October 12. When members were verified and given their checks, they were informed of the location that the union had negotiated for them to be able to cash them, either at their hotel, or at a bank near their hotel.

Local 610 President Jason Rivera with aid recipient Ismael Garcia holding his $1,000 check.

A total of 1,077 hurricane relief checks of $1,000 each were distributed between October 12 and October 15, and 173 checks were still to be distributed when HTC staff left Puerto Rico October 16 (they first flew to the Dominican Republic because it was impossible to get a flight from Puerto Rico to the U.S.). Before leaving, the staff coordinated the distribution of the remaining checks.

The slow response of officials and the desperate situation of having neither work nor money made it clear that the $1,000 checks met an essential need. Even though the union considered sending essential supplies to Puerto Rico, it became clear that it would be impossible to ship those supplies in any timely way and that the members themselves know best what they needed individually. Workers were extremely thankful and amazed with the union’s commitment to help them.

“The desperate situation of having neither work nor money made it clear that the $1,000 checks that we were distributing met an essential need,” Padilla said. “Workers were extremely thankful.”

HTC Operations Assistant Julissa Sanchez working to deliver relief checks to Local 610 members.

Indeed, an innumerable number of workers expressed sincere appreciation. El San Juan Casino worker Minerva Espada Rodríguez said, “I would like to give my thanks to the union for this generous relief, for giving us this money when we need help, especially now, to buy water and food. Thank you so much!”

Casino Dealer Rigobelto Santiago Rosario, who was a picket captain during the El San Juan contract fight and volunteered in the check distribution process, said, “Here in the island everything is totally devastated. We are trying to survive as much as we can. Water supplies are very scarce and there is no power at all where I live. Driving around is not easy, there are incredibly long lines in the gas stations and in the supermarkets. We are trying to do the best we can under these difficult circumstances. This is a wonderful thing for the union to do. This makes a huge difference, and I’m honored to be part of this union.”

El San Juan Casino worker Tony Tirado Bringmann, who is a cancer survivor, told us, “Lucky for us the union was kind enough to come up with the funds to help us. We are trying to survive like everybody else. Thank you and God bless the union!”

Melia Ponce Housekeeper Alba Velásquez Sánchez said, “I wasn’t expecting this. It caught me by surprise this act of consideration and love. I’m very thankful to the union.”

Many Local 610 members brought their families to pick up their hurricane relief aid.

El San Juan Casino Compliance Officer Pablo Pagán Figueroa said: “I want to thank the union for this help. I can’t find the words to say how much I appreciate this help because there is so much that the check is going to do for us. Being able to buy food, water and the things that we really need.”

Many members noted that before FEMA and before the local government, the union was there for them. Horror stories abounded. Workers cried and expressed how they couldn’t believe what they were going through, and how much the union’s act of kindness and solidarity meant to them. Some showed heartbreaking videos of their struggle while the hurricane was passing, of the wide destruction it caused and the remaining parts of their houses confirming that the union’s financial aid was immeasurable help.'

El San Juan workers fill out paperwork to receive Hurricane Maria relief aid.

As all of us know, there is a humanitarian crisis happening in Puerto Rico. Our Local 610 brothers and sisters are among the victims of this event. Most people of Puerto Rico have been living without power, water and other basic necessities, and it seems there is a long road to recovery.

In these difficult times our union sent a team of six staff members to distribute $1,000 hurricane relief checks to over 1,200 families. This financial aid—provided by HTC, Local 6 and UNITE HERE—was sorely needed, and it arrived at a critical moment when people had drained their savings and had to make important decisions about how to provide for their families. The aid our union provided is being used for food, water, and other necessities and can truly be called vital.

Hotel Voice would like to thank HTC Assistant Director of Organizing Arisha Sierra-Blas for her help in reporting this news article.''

Assistant Director of Organizing Arisha Sierra-Blas going over paperwork with a group of Local 610 members.

“We express our sincere appreciation to HTC Vice President George Padilla for his efforts on behalf of Local 610 members,” Peter Ward said, “as well as the other staff members who journeyed to Puerto Rico to assist in the distribution effort; Arisha Sierra-Blas, Local 6 Business Agent Nick Ruiz, Operations Assistants Julissa Sanchez and Ian Duffee, and Organizer Marcela Villacob.”

If you, too, would like to help in the relief effort in Puerto Rico, contributions dedicated to assisting the restoration effort can be made online to UNICEF, Save the Children and the American Red Cross.