Workers rally to fight for jobs amid coronavirus epidemic; dire time for hotels

After almost 10 years in the hospitality industry, Christie Spiteri is uncertain about her future.

Most recently, she worked full time as a server at the Chateau Victoria Hotel’s Vista 18 restaurant for two years before being laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 17.

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“Growing up in Victoria where the hospitality sector is such an important part of our economy, I always thought that this would be a safe industry to work in,” she said Tuesday during a rally for hotel workers at the legislature. “As long as I worked hard and provided good service, I never worried about the insecurity of losing my job, until now.

“Since being laid off I constantly teeter on what tomorrow’s going to look like with financial burdens and obviously emotionally it’s impacted me heavily, as well.”

Only a few people have been called back to work at Chateau Victoria since the pandemic started, Spiteri said.

“And there’s no word on when the rest of us are going to be brought back to the hotel.”

Spiteri was among about 60 people demonstrating for a legal right to return to their jobs as the recovery from COVID continues. Participants were from Victoria, Vancouver and other parts of the Lower Mainland.

Spiteri said the level of insecurity she is feeling is “overwhelming.”

“I’ve been on [Employment Insurance] for a really, really long time and at this point I’m barely scraping by.”

The industry will eventually improve, she said. “Why won’t the industry promise to bring us back? Why won’t the government make that guarantee for us?”

Spiteri said she and other hotel workers at the rally have built careers in the hospitality industry.

“These aren’t just jobs, they’re a vital part of B.C.’s economy.”

Unite Here Local 40 organized the rally. The union has 6,000 members in B.C., including 500 in the capital region working at establishments such as the Chateau Victoria Hotel and Coast Victoria Hotel and Marina, said Stephanie Fung, union spokesperson. They are among more than 50,000 hotel workers in B.C.

The B.C. Hotel Association is seeking support from all levels of government to keep its businesses — and its jobs — alive, at a time when hotels are not profitable, even if many are open.

Ingrid Jarrett, hotel association chief executive, said it is critical that province extend the temporary layoff provision past the Aug. 30 end date and for the federal government to extend the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit in tandem. It proposes that those supports last until the sector regains 70 per cent of its historic revenues.

The association wants B.C. to allow municipalities to grant property tax relief for hotels.

Without this kind of help, Jarrett predicts a third of B.C.’s hotels could shut down.

“It is a very, very dire time and we have very limited confidence that the summer is actually going to allow many of the businesses to survive.”

B.C. has 83,000 hotel rooms in 1,252 hotels. Of those hotels, 25 per cent remain closed, she said. Those that are open are running at about 30 per cent capacity.

More than 80 per cent of hotels in B.C. are small and medium-sized businesses, she said.

Jarrett would like to see B.C. opened to travellers from elsewhere in Canada this summer.

The association is proposing that B.C. allow meetings and conferences, possibility by fall. They would follow health and safety protocols, and allow attendees from elsewhere in Canada and from international locations where the infection rate is low.

Frank Bourree, tourism consultant and vice-chair of the South Island Prosperity Partnership, pointed to the relationship between jobs and a healthy industry.

“The problem is that very few tourism businesses are going to be up to full capacity in order to bring everybody back, even through the fall. So is there even a job for them to come back to?

“I think it is great that they [workers] are bringing profile to the loss of tourism jobs here but there has to be an employer there to employ them. And the industry is really precarious right now.”

Employees need to be supported until their jobs come back, Bourree said.

Another key factor is that when the temporary layoff period winds up, employers have to pay severance. “For the employers, if they’ve got a huge severance hit, that might push them right over the edge into bankruptcy,” Bourree said.

Tourism represents 10 per cent of the employment base in the capital region, Bourree said.

Greater Victoria hotels are running at about 25 per cent occupancy, down from 80 per cent a year ago, he said.

“Nobody believes that we are going to see international travel into B.C. for the balance of this year.”

Even when a hotel is open, it is unlikely to be profitable, Bourree said. Most open hotels are operating on a “shoestring,” he said.

The challenge locally and within the rest of the province, is that B.C. visitors stay on the weekends and not during the week, meaning the industry is not filling enough rooms. Travellers from elsewhere in Canada and internationally typically stay long and stay during the week, Bourree said.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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