In response to the COVID-19 threat, Governor Edwards issued a stay-at-home order in late March. Suddenly, most of the hospitality and tourism industry throughout the state came to a halt. It was immediately clear that thousands of workers would be laid off with little assistance and find themselves in financial freefall. To make matters worse, many of these workers do not have access to unemployment benefits, stimulus checks or relief grants. The shock was especially severe across New Orleans, where we are particularly dependent on the hospitality industry, causing unspeakable harm to families, communities, and our culture.
In the midst of the chaos and confusion, however, hundreds of volunteers, businesses, and institutions ran to the front lines to assist and protect our most vulnerable. As in previous emergencies, the COVID-19 crisis brought out the best in many of us. Countless heroes distinguished themselves from a handful of people who put their own narrow business and political interests first. Such was and continues to be the case with the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and its governing board, the Exhibition Hall Authority (EHA).
A group of recently laid-off hospitality workers, unions, and advocacy organizations knew the board could do more to help our city. We formed the Coalition for a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers and formulated the demand that the board of the Convention Center transfer $100 million, the equivalent of $1,000 per hospitality worker, to an independent fund with robust community oversight that could administer relief directly to all tourism and hospitality workers in a fair, legal, and transparent way. Our demand for accessible relief resonated with the greater New Orleans community, leading our movement to grow to more than 40 unions, membership organizations, community groups, businesses and religious bodies to form a diverse and unprecedented coalition.
We shared dozens of stories from hospitality workers about why this fund is critical to our survival. We did this through our social media accounts and website, in the local press, in written testimony at Convention Center board meetings, in meetings with City Council members and state legislators, at two socially distanced rallies on Bourbon Street (both of which strictly complied with city regulations on crowd size), and nightly to our family and neighbors on our porches and at our kitchen tables. We thought that maybe, if the board members heard these stories, they would help us.
Our support throughout the city and beyond grew. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution endorsing our demand for a fair and meaningful fund for hospitality workers. Dozens of clergy came together and supported us in a prayer action. More than 1,700 community members, including hundreds of musicians, servers, room attendants, cooks, pedicab drivers, dishwashers, and dancers signed the petition endorsing our demands. The Communications Workers of America — a major Convention Center client — demonstrated the meaning of solidarity by threatening to cancel their 2021 meeting if the EHA didn’t come to the table and negotiate a hospitality fund.
The movement for a #FairFundNow brought workers across the hospitality and tourism industry together in a show of labor unity this city and region hasn’t witnessed in a long time. Despite the glaring need and suffering of the community, the only concession made by the Authority was $1 million. Even if all hospitality and tourism workers in New Orleans had access to this $1 million, it would average out to a mere $10 per worker. In fact, many of our most vulnerable co-workers and community members did not have access to this donation, which was released without consultation.
The Convention Center cannot explain its inaction by a lack of resources. As has been widely reported, the board sits on well more than $100 million in cash reserves and depending on the chosen accounting method, possibly a great deal more. These funds were generated through the hard work of tens of thousands of us who are now in need. The board cannot hide behind its other charitable actions either. When the governor first considered the Convention Center for a field hospital, the main concern of some members was not how many lives they could save but the impact on their “brand of tourism”. Ultimately it was not the generosity of the board but the leadership of our governor that transformed the building into a much needed healthcare facility.
When all of New Orleans stood together to weather the storm, the board balked. When our city’s least privileged requested a portion of the money their work produced to pay their bills and care for their families, the best the board could muster was the equivalent of a 1% tip. When the time for an EHA that truly represents the hospitality industry comes — and it will come — we will make sure that workers, union leaders, and community advocates are the ones sitting on that board. This powerful institution will first and foremost represent the well-being of the workers that allow our industry to exist.
Some of us are preparing to return to work in a time of deep public health uncertainty, making a truly safe return to work paramount. Many unlucky workers find ourselves without jobs, customers, clients and audiences to return to and are facing the looming end of unemployment benefits. For all of us, this crisis and the responses of powerful organizations like the EHA have demonstrated the need for real accountability in the hospitality industry, accountability we will pursue with a robust campaign for a truly safe return to work. It’s clear we can’t trust the industry leaders and political aspirants who make up that board to put their community first. Their silence and inaction in this time will be remembered.
Over the last two months, the fair fund campaign has created a truly unique and powerful movement. The release of $1 million was a pittance, but it was also the first time in this city’s history that hospitality workers came together and won an industry-wide victory of this scale. It is now time to transition to the next phase. If it wasn’t clear before, the COVID-19 crisis has shown how vulnerable many of us are in this industry, and how a temporary shock can destroy our lives. We cannot allow any industry that thrives on poverty, lack of health protection and inconsistent hours to continue unchecked, let alone our city’s largest. As some of us return to work, rest assured that we will continue what we have started and collectively transform the way this industry operates.
To our community, we thank you for your loyalty and support over the last two months. Join us as we continue the fight to reimagine the New Orleans hospitality and tourism industry to be accountable to all of us.
This column was submitted by the Coalition for a Fair Hospitality Fund.
Alec Desbordes was laid off from La Petite Grocery at the beginning of the shutdown and remains unemployed. Sarah Langley was laid off from the Hyatt at the beginning of the shutdown and remains unemployed. Emma Yip was laid off from Carmo at the beginning of the shutdown and remains unemployed.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Tom Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.