Hotel workers happy with new contract
By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Lynda Arakawa
Waikiki hotel workers are happy again.
In the past three weeks, about 4,500 at several of Waikiki's largest hotels agreed to new four-year contracts that include:
The threat of a strike is gone, as are the pickets that dotted Kalakaua Avenue during the five months of contract negotiation. Workers said they wanted their share of the record high revenue Hawai'i hotels have been collecting in the last two years, and it appears they got it, judging from interviews with several hotel employees.
The hotels "did step up to the plate and take care of us," said Fran Kauwe, a 31-year Sheraton veteran, now working as a waitress at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's Surf Room. "It was a very good victory."
Todd A.K. Martin, a 22-year Hilton employee, said the wage increases will help him pay bills and save more money. "For myself and some of my co-workers, we have some peace for the next four years, and we have job security for four years," the 42-year-old said.
The new contract is a positive step for an industry that employs almost 40,000 people, 6.4 percent of Hawai'i's non-agriculture work force.
It will lift salaries that have ranged from $19.06 an hour for bartenders to $14.27 for housekeepers.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel hostess Janal Kaina said many employees are just pleased the negotiations are over.
"You can see it in their faces that they're just relieved, and they can just focus and concentrate on really taking care of our guests without having that hanging over our heads," said Kaina, who has worked for Sheraton for almost 20 years. "It's a big burden that's been lifted off our shoulders so we can all move forward."
STAKES WERE HIGH
Many workers had feared a drawn-out fight culminating in a strike, which Hilton and Sheraton workers authorized their union, UNITE HERE Local 5, to call if talks broke down. Workers were worried about their medical and retirement benefits eroding, and Sheraton employees were concerned about where they would fit in with the hotels' plans to convert one hotel to a time-share and renovate other properties.
Hotel executives described the contracts as fair for all parties.
"We are proud to demonstrate our appreciation for our employees by providing competitive wages and great benefit packages that are some of the best in the nation," Hyatt Regency Waikiki general manager Mike Jokovich said after the hotel's tentative agreement with the union.
The stakes were high because a strike had the potential to disrupt the extraordinary success of Hawai'i's hotel industry, which has been enjoying high occupancy and record high revenue and room rates. The last major hotel strike in Waikiki was in 1990 and lasted 22 days.
The contracts include wage increases of $2.40 an hour over four years for nontipped workers, and $1.20 an hour increases for tipped workers over the same period. The contracts also preserve employee health and retirement benefits, and provide double-time sick leave pay for tipped workers.
The Sheraton hotels promised Local 5 that employees would be taken care of during redevelopment projects, including providing any displaced workers with pension and medical coverage for up to 18 months, the union said.
Unionized employees at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa and the four Sheraton hotels in Waikiki ratified their contracts last month. A similar contract covering more than 500 employees at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa was ratified Thursday.
The union still must negotiate contracts for hundreds of workers at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, the Ala Moana Hotel, The Kahala Hotel & Resort and the Ilikai. Local 5 officials have said they will seek similar contracts.
For Kaina, the Royal Hawaiian hostess, good wages and benefits in Hawai'i's hotel industry are key to attracting younger generations and keeping them from leaving the Islands.
"Right now, there's a lot of people that see a better future (on) the Mainland, and I don't want that for my kids," said Kaina, whose brother moved to the Mainland to work.
HOUSEKEEPERS GET HELP
Workers weren't only concerned about money. Hilton's new contract reduces housekeepers' workload from 16 to 15 rooms a day, which for 51-year-old Dolores Epan means less work-related injuries and more opportunities to take lunch breaks. Epan, who has been cleaning rooms at the Hilton for 18 years, said she has skipped lunch periodically to finish cleaning all the rooms, and that she may undergo her third surgery because of a shoulder injury.
"Fifteen (rooms) is still a lot, but at least we're moving in the right direction," she said.
Being 66 years old, medical benefits were a primary concern for Robert "Tony" Bissen, an "ambassador of aloha" at the Moana Surfrider Hotel.
"When you look on the outside and you look at different industries, a lot of the employees are paying quite a few bucks out of their own pocket to get medical coverage," Bissen said.
Under the contract, the company will continue to cover all medical insurance premiums for employees.
Keeping medical and retirement benefits was also the top concern for Kauwe, the Surf Room waitress. Because she relies heavily on her tips, she also likes that the contract provides for double-time sick leave pay for tipped workers.
"Sick leave isn't something that you can plan like vacation," said Kauwe, 57. "You can be counting on paying a bill with whatever money you'd be making (in tips) and you get sick and you're unable to do it."
Kauwe, who has three children and four stepchildren, has worked two jobs. Her second jobs have included working at the Princess Kaiulani and driving a limo, things she stopped doing about five years ago because her children are grown now. She's experienced the dramatic ups and downs in Hawai'i's fragile tourism industry. But for Kauwe, who makes lei for return visitors with puakenikeni in her yard and has even invited some to her house for dinner, can't imagine doing anything else.
"My forte is dealing with people," she said.
Jason Tabarejo, a 49-year-old bellman at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel, said the economic package in the contract was "OK" and that wage increases could have been higher. But overall, he was still "very pleased" both sides were able to reach an agreement.
"Everyone was under a lot of pressure and stress. We were preparing for a strike," said Tabarejo, who has worked for Sheraton for 18 years. "Now it's a big relief, and I can see it on people's faces. It's back to normal."
Having things back to normal is important for Kaina, the Surf Room hostess. She worried about the hotel guests — especially the repeat visitors employees have built relationships with — if there was a strike. Kaina, a union shop steward, said one return guest had told her she didn't want to visit during a strike, in part to show respect to the workers she had come to know.
"They're not just your guests, they're your friends," said Kaina, a 42-year-old mother of two grown children and a child in middle school. "They tell you their stories and vice versa. And that's how we get to know each other."
Reach Lynda Arakawa at email@example.com.