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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 30, 2006

Good life a hard one for many

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

They told stories of people working two jobs to help pay their grandchildren's tuition for preschool; of sleeping in the locker room between shifts to stay awake at their second or third job; of workers in their 70s afraid to retire because they'd lose their medical coverage; and of the unrealistic dream of home ownership for so many working families.

"It's half a million dollars for a 1,200-square-foot townhouse," said Darcel Salanoa, a waitress at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider for 10 years.

"Achieving middle class membership for immigrant workers is a lot harder than it used to be," said Henry Chan, who is originally from Hong Kong and has been a waiter at the Sheraton for 20 years

On Friday morning, a group of hotel workers met with union leader Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here!, the national hotel workers' union, and with actor Danny Glover, an activist in union causes.

Local 5 is holding "Hotel Workers Rising" events in preparation for contract negotiations for nearly 6,500 workers in 10 O'ahu hotels. The contract expires in June. Raynor and Glover were in town to speak at a rally at the Blaisdell Friday night. This earlier meeting was a quiet gathering, almost like a support group, where people talked about their lives, the things they were grateful for, the things they feared, and the things that bring them to tears even years later.

Delores Reyes cried as she talked about her husband's illness. In 1989, he needed open heart surgery. He recovered and lived four years before falling ill again. The last two weeks of his life were spent in a hospital intensive care unit.

"We didn't make much money, but since we had medical coverage, we managed," Reyes said. "Can you imagine how much money that would be?"

Reyes has worked as a housekeeper for a Waikiki hotel for 22 years. Her job allowed her to provide for her children and keep her house after her husband died.

One woman, a hotel worker for 34 years, talked about how she worked long hours at two jobs to support her four children by herself. Two of her children got into trouble with drugs. If not for the Employee Assistance Program at work, she would not have made it through. She would not now have her family.

Summer Gatewood, who works in hotel housekeeping, said she enjoys her job. Still, "I have knee pains, shoulder pains, backaches, headaches. I'm only 26 years old, I shouldn't be feeling this way." She added: "I'm young. I want to enjoy my life. When I go home, I'm just resting up for the next day."

Rod Kane, who has worked for the last 14 years in food service, talked about endless, needless corporate training seminars.

"My family tree goes back to the 1700s. You don't have to teach me how to be local."

Hotel workers in Waikiki make between $14 and $17 an hour. Kane quoted an article from Pacific Business News saying that a living wage in Hawai'i is $22 an hour. "How many of us in this room are making even close to that?"

They talked about how much they enjoy their jobs, how grateful they are for what they have, but how close to the bone they have to live, and the fear that they will never get ahead, or worse, that they will lose ground.

In closing the talk-story session, Glover spoke of a concept he called "structural violence. ... when people make decisions that attempt to diminish your expectations for yourselves, make you feel your dreams aren't allowable, acceptable or accessible."

Everyone in the room nodded.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.