Key Contractual Protections During COVID-19

Union Workers

The wages, benefits, and protections that the workers represented by our Union enjoy are established by your Union contract. For over 80 years, our Union has fought militantly to win and secure numerous benefits including high wages, free family healthcare, a well-funded pension, and the best protections and rights for hotel workers anywhere in the world.

During the present crisis created by the coronavirus, there are certain contractual protections regarding layoffs, recall and seniority rights, and health and safety that have become increasingly important. To review highlights of these contract clauses, please select the master contract that covers your hotel/casino/restaurant:

If you are unsure about which master agreement applies to you, call (212) 245-8100 and press option #1.

Non-Union Workers

1 Q: What rights do I have to negotiate over wages, benefits, and my working conditions?

A: If you don’t have union representation, the law gives your employer the right to refuse to negotiate with you about the terms of your job, which means non-union workers almost never dare to try to negotiate with their bosses. They simply accept the fact that the employer is the one who makes all the decisions about their lives at work. So, in practical terms, for non-union workers, nothing is negotiable.

One current and crucial example is that during the COVID-19 crisis, you don’t have the legal right to negotiate for proper personal protective equipment (PPE), a safe workload and environment, or good quality and affordable healthcare. You are dependent on the generosity and kindness of the company that employs you.

As Union members, the law provides us the right to negotiate as a group with our bosses over pretty much anything that affects us at work. For us, everything is negotiable, and that’s a great right for working people to have. The law gives union represented workers more legal rights than non-union workers, and from there, using our power as an organization, we multiply and expand our legal rights even more by negotiating union contracts. Our Union contracts are legally-binding, written agreements between the Union and the employer that are enforceable under the law. They give union represented workers the right to higher wages, safer and more humane working conditions and workloads, much better benefits, protections against unfair treatment, job security and an on-going practical process for enforcing rights effectively and improving our conditions at work.

HTC has also built political power on a state and local level by mobilizing to elect candidates that support working people and thereby removing elected officials who don’t. We wield this power to pass laws that will protect our jobs and to help working people in our communities. We have recently supported legislation that may help all hotel workers, including non-union workers like you, to have safer working conditions during this public health crisis.

But by far, the best thing you can do is win the power to negotiate directly with your boss. The Union organizes many non-union hotels and casinos every year. Together, with our help, you can bring the Union into your property too.

2 Q: But can’t I negotiate directly with my boss without having the Union?

A: Do you really? Ask yourself why you don’t knock on your boss’s door and say, “I want free family health insurance,” or “that raise you are giving us isn’t enough,” or “I want a copy of my personnel file,” or “I think it’s wrong that you suspended my co-worker Mary and I want to know why.” The truth is, non-union workers understand that doing something like that is dangerous. They would rarely even consider gently voicing those kinds of objections to their boss, much less doing so with firmness.

Some non-union workers tell themselves they don't need a union contract. They tell themselves the law protects them more than it does. They say to themselves things like, “I can take care of myself” and “I know my rights!” But they don’t really believe that.

They know the truth is that non-union workers have very few rights. In New York State and New Jersey, the law says that if you don't have a contract with your employer, your boss can fire you for almost any reason or even for no reason at all. This is called "employment at-will."

If your hotel is non-union, you don't have a union contract, so you are “at-will” employees. This means that you have no job security and your boss has the legal right to make limitless changes to your job, including things like increasing your workload, reducing your pay, and eliminating many of your benefits. Your boss also has the absolute power to make unfair decisions that affect you and your co-workers, and it’s hard for even good bosses not to abuse absolute power.

Union contracts make it illegal for management to fire or discipline employees unfairly. They also set up a fair system for resolving problems between the boss and the workers – one that the boss doesn’t control. It’s called a Grievance and Arbitration system. Here’s how it works:

  1. Management has to prove that an employee deserved to be fired or disciplined.
  2. The rules and procedures are guaranteed legally in a contract and management cannot change them.
  3. Employees have the right to have their cases presented by experienced representatives and lawyers.
  4. Management has to let the Union have access to all relevant witnesses and evidence.
  5. Decisions are made by an unbiased arbitrator, who is not controlled by management.
  6. The Union can arbitrate any kind of case including firings, suspensions, write-ups, back pay claims, job description cases, health and safety issues, etc. and management can not refuse to arbitrate any case.
  7. Management is legally required to obey the arbitrator’s decision.

3 Q: What about the policies in my employee handbook? Aren’t those rights that I have on the job?

A: Most non-union hotels give their employees an "Employee Handbook." Have you read it carefully? The “Employee Handbook” really ought to be called the “Employer’s Handbook” because that’s who the handbook is for. It’s largely written by the employer’s lawyers to protect the employer against you. Almost always, it includes a “management escape clause” which states that the employee handbook is not a contract between the employer and the employee and that management has the right to change or ignore anything in the handbook, whenever it wants to.

This “management escape clause” means that you should understand that all of the promises management makes in your employee handbook are only promises and one party always gets to decide whether or not to keep its promises. The employee handbook is written by the employer and you can’t negotiate changes to it. So you shouldn't be surprised that employee handbooks don't give you any enforceable rights.

Read through your employee handbook and try finding the “management escape clause” inside. It's there.

4 Q: My employer has promised to implement new safety measures and drafted workplace policies around the Coronavirus. Aren’t those enforceable?
No, those safety measures and workplace policies are not a contract between you and your employer. Your employer has the right to ignore or change their mind about any of the policies they create. Also, corporations are asking Congress to pass an emergency law to take away any rights of employees to sue employers if they contract COVID-19 as a result of the employer’s negligence. Unions are by far the most important organizations lobbying and organizing to protect workers’ rights in Congress and state legislatures during this emergency. In that debate, non-union (non-organized) workers just sit on the sidelines.

Many of the policies that the hotel industry has been proposing in response to the Coronavirus are downright bad for hotel workers. The industry has suggested that hotels eliminate the daily cleaning of stay-over rooms (which will mean more check-outs for those of you who return to work, fewer workers, and less hours for everyone else), replace front desk agents with “mobile” check-in, and eliminate services such as bell/door and room service to limit face-to-face contact between guests and hotel employees. Even though these policies will make a hotel less safe and sanitary, some corporations are taking advantage of this crisis as an excuse to permanently cut labor costs to make bigger profits.

If more non-union workers joined unions, workers would have more power and our country would be more fair for working people.

5 Q: I have been laid off because of the Coronavirus. Can my boss decide not to bring me back to work?

A: Yes, unless you were able to negotiate an enforceable contract the way professional athletes and movie stars do. Otherwise, without union representation and a contract, you are an “at-will” employee. This means you have no job security and your boss has no legal obligation to call you back to work. Your boss can also give special treatment to employees by favoritism (including calling them back first), increase the workload of employees who return to work, and give your work to managers, new workers, or workers from other departments to do your work in order to save money.

In our Union, we have the legal right, in all of our contracts, to be recalled to work in order of seniority - not based on special treatment or favoritism – as soon as the work is available again. And if we catch management assigning work based on favoritism, offering overtime during a layoff or doing the work of union-represented employees, they will have to pay the employees who were affected back pay for violating our contract.

6 Q: Can my boss decide to cut pay or benefits when we return to work?

A: Another disadvantage to being an “at-will” employee is that many non-union employers are reducing wages and benefits because of the economic crisis created by the Coronavirus. Without union representation or a contract, you are an “at-will” employee and your boss is allowed to reduce your pay, as long as they inform you and don’t pay less than minimum wage (which is $15.00 in New York City, $13.00 in Long Island and Westchester, $11.80 in the rest of New York State, and $11.00 in New Jersey), and, of course, they also have the right to eliminate or reduce your benefits and/or increase the amounts you have to pay for them.

The main right you have if you’re “at-will” is to quit.

Under our Union contract, management cannot reduce pay or benefits, unless the Union agrees to it. There is also the right to challenge in arbitration, any managerial decisions that the Union considers unfair, and we can constantly negotiate to improve working conditions for Union-represented employees.

7 Q: What if my boss calls me back to work and I don’t feel safe traveling to my job and working?

A: Under New Jersey and New York law, as an “at-will” employee, there is very little that protects you from discipline, retaliation, or even firing if you refuse to return to work. But you have the right to quit.

At the start of this crisis, our Union negotiated a safety protocol agreement that gives Union-represented employees unlimited voluntary time off (unpaid) for any reason related to the Coronavirus. We also have the ability, at most union shops, to use any of our remaining vacation days left in the year towards paid time off.

8 Q: Does my boss have to provide me with PPE?

A: On April 12, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.16 that requires all essential businesses (which includes hotels in New York) to provide employees with face coverings when in direct contact with customers at the employer’s expense.

A similar executive order (Executive Order 122) was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. New Jersey’s Executive Order requires the employer to pay for and provide both face coverings and gloves to employees.

However, the Coronavirus safety protocol agreement our Union negotiated goes further, greatly multiplying our rights to PPE and a safe work environment.

9 Q: What if my boss calls me back for less than 5 days?

A: You’re at-will. So, your boss has no legal obligation to call you back to work at all, or to offer work in order of seniority or to offer you a full work week.

If you are called back for less than 5 days, in both New York and New Jersey, you can still certify for unemployment benefits. Your benefit will be reduced based on how much money you earn. To read more about unemployment in New York, click here. For New Jersey, click here