The Secret Behind Hotel Workers Making $19 an Hour in Boston

A training center in New England trains low-skill, minimum-wage workers for jobs that pay $19.36 an hour with benefits.

Students are trained for higher paying hotel jobs in Boston.
National Journal
June 11, 2015, 10:57 a.m.

Back in Cape Verde, Mar­gar­ida Jur­gensen owned a res­taur­ant. It was small, just like the is­land na­tion off the coast of West Africa that she called home. But it was hers. She left for a bet­ter life eight years ago, but found her­self mak­ing bur­gers in a Bo­ston Mc­Don­ald’s. The irony stung. She was stuck there for six years. Though she slowly moved from cook to cash­ier to night-shift man­ager, her pay re­mained around $8.50 an hour, with no be­ne­fits. Jur­gensen, who is rais­ing two daugh­ters, doesn’t say much about those years ex­cept, “it wasn’t a good ex­per­i­ence.”

This is what Mar­ie Downey calls a dead-end job. Downey, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Bo­ston Edu­ca­tion, Skills and Train­ing Corp., has seen this story throughout her ca­reer as a so­cial work­er. Work­ers like Jur­gensen don’t have be­ne­fits or pre­dict­able sched­ules or sick time. They want to make time to spend with their fam­il­ies. And someday they want to buy a home. But most can’t do that on the pay of a low-skill, min­im­um wage job.

Downey of­fers them a way out. BEST Corp., a non­profit work­force de­vel­op­ment agency, op­er­ates the Hos­pit­al­ity Train­ing Cen­ter, which pre­pares low-skill work­ers for high­er-pay­ing jobs in the hotel in­dustry, such as room at­tend­ant, dish­wash­er, cook and stew­ard.

Jur­gensen heard about the pro­gram through a friend two years ago, and com­pleted a series of classes that taught prob­lem solv­ing, team­work, com­mu­nic­a­tion and Eng­lish skills, and cus­tom­er ser­vice. She now is a room at­tend­ant at the Ritz-Carlton, which pays more and of­fers be­ne­fits.

“This was the greatest op­por­tun­ity that I’ve ever had be­cause they helped me find a job,” says Jur­gensen. “From $8.50 an hour, now I’m mak­ing $19. How great is that? Right now, I’m so happy.”

“This was the greatest op­por­tun­ity that I’ve ever had be­cause they helped me find a job.” — Mar­gar­ida Jur­gensen

One of her daugh­ters just gradu­ated high school and is off to col­lege, for which Jur­gensen will help pay. Jur­gensen is also en­rolled in a house-buy­ing pro­gram through the Hos­pit­al­ity Train­ing Cen­ter which goes in­to ef­fect two years after com­ple­tion and will help her own a home in Bo­ston’s Dorchester neigh­bor­hood. She is build­ing the bet­ter life she wanted when she moved to the U.S. from Cape Verde.

“Em­ploy­ers need to in­vest in their work­ers so work­ers can in­vest in their fam­il­ies and in their com­munit­ies,” Downey said. “It’s about the dig­nity of work. Hard-work­ing people should be able to feed their fam­il­ies and earn a liv­ing wage.”

“It’s about the dig­nity of work. Hard-work­ing people should be able to feed their fam­il­ies and earn a liv­ing wage.” — Mar­ie Downey

For five to six weeks, stu­dents par­ti­cip­ate in classes that range from com­puter train­ing and spe­cif­ic job in­struc­tion to Eng­lish, GED, and cit­izen­ship courses, with class sizes between 12 and 15 stu­dents. In some of those classes, there could be stu­dents from 10 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, Downey says.

The pro­gram has a place­ment rate of 90 per­cent, where stu­dents start off mak­ing $16.50 an hour with be­ne­fits. After three months, they earn over $19 an hour. BEST Corp. tracks gradu­ates for three to five years after they leave the pro­gram, and has found that the train­ees stay in those po­s­i­tions at a 91 per­cent rate.

Since the pro­gram only trains as many people as the num­ber of hotel jobs avail­able, it’s com­pet­it­ive. This year, for ex­ample, stu­dents went through three rounds of in­ter­views to fill the 90 spots that were avail­able. Around 200 people in the last four years have com­pleted courses. But those num­bers could start grow­ing sub­stan­tially. There are 30 more ho­tels in the de­vel­op­ment pipeline in Bo­ston, and nearly a dozen of those will open in the next two years.

The pro­gram was borne out of the col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing agree­ment between the hotel in­dustry and the hotel work­ers uni­on: UNITE HERE Loc­al 26. It was ini­tially in­ten­ded for uni­on mem­bers only, but has ex­pan­ded to un­em­ployed and un­der­em­ployed people out­side the in­dustry. For the lat­ter, train­ing is fun­ded by private and pub­lic grants. Bri­an Lang, the uni­on pres­id­ent, thinks this part­ner­ship could be a mod­el.

“This is ac­tu­ally an area where we per­suaded the private sec­tor to in­vest in the train­ing in a very big way,” he says. “It ac­tu­ally ends up be­ing a private sec­tor-labor man­age­ment ini­ti­at­ive. Be­cause of the private-sec­tor com­mit­ment here, it’s much more sus­tain­able.”

And the loc­al hotel in­dustry is on board. John Murtha, the gen­er­al man­ager of the Omni Park­er House, says he’s happy to hire gradu­ates of the hos­pit­al­ity pro­gram, and in­forms the non­profit when there are job open­ings.

“We have very good luck with those gradu­ates,” Murtha says. “They come pre­pared and eager and un­der­stand­ing what’s ex­pec­ted of them. The job mar­ket in Bo­ston for many of our po­s­i­tions is tight, re­gard­less of what the eco­nomy is like. If there’s any re­source we can reach out to find qual­i­fied can­did­ates for em­ploy­ment, why wouldn’t you use it?”

It’s a win-win for the in­dustry and the work­ers them­selves.

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