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Hotel workers fear condo conversions threatening jobs

Hotel workers fear condo conversions threatening jobs
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For 12 years, Loida Soriano’s job as an assistant cook at the Hyatt Regency on King St. has won her stability and a way to support her six siblings in the Philippines.

But the city’s skyline is changing — and with it, Soriano’s employment prospects.

“One day you see a hotel,” said the 44-year-old Toronto resident. “Next thing you see construction. We want security.”

An estimated 2,500 unionized hotel jobs are at risk from condo redevelopments, according to a recent report from Unifor Local 7575, the union representing hospitality workers. Examples include the Courtyard Marriott on Yonge St. north of Carlton St., and the Chelsea Hotel at Yonge and Gerrard Sts., where condo developers have proposed significantly reducing the number of hotel rooms on site.

Now, hotel workers are fighting for new job protections from their employers — and calling on the City of Toronto to step in.

“If my job is secure, I don’t have to worry,” Soriano said.

At the Bloor Marriott hotel in Yorkville, an early victory: members of Unifor Local 7575 have just won new measures that prevent the hotel from laying them off for at least three years due to possible condo redevelopments. Soriano, who is a member of her union’s collective bargaining team at the Hyatt, says she hopes to win the same provisions.

“If they have it, we want it,” she said.

Municipally, policies already exist to insulate downtown white collar workers from job losses: the city’s office replacement policy requires developers who want to repurpose a building to replace office square footage in order to get their application approved.

Similarly, lands zoned as employment areas are “almost impossible to convert into condos,” says Thorben Wieditz, a researcher with Unifor Local 7575, which represents hospitality workers.

But since hotels are designated as mixed-use properties, developers don’t need to meet the same obligations.

“That’s a huge loophole in that it allows developers to take advantage of the fact that there’s no protection in place for these kinds of jobs.”

Wieditz said the hospitality sector is one of the few providing unionized jobs with decent wages to a workforce largely comprised of women of colour. That’s also part of the reason he believes the issue has been given short shrift, compared to the closure of places like the Mr. Christie’s factory in Etobicoke in 2012. There, the city rejected developers’ bid to change the site’s employment area zoning; the latest development proposal now includes retail and transit components as well as residential.

“You saw a huge outcry in the city,” Wieditz recalls. “You saw the labour council organize, you saw city council speaking out about the jobs losses. But with hotels it’s a slow trickling away of thousands of jobs and no one actually gives a damn about it.”

“It’s mostly women, it’s mostly racialized women. It’s different to blue-collar jobs that are mostly in male-dominated industries. I think the city hasn’t done a proper job in taking this into consideration and actually addressing it in policy terms,” he added.

Sean Allen, 32, works at the Courtyard Marriott where a proposed condo development would retain a hotel component but slash the number of rooms from 550 to 289.

“It’s created some anxiety and precariousness within the workplace,” he said. “(We) don’t know if there’s going to be a hotel here tomorrow,” said Allen, who is advocating for stronger protections from the city for work like his.

For Allen, who comes from a retail background, hospitality jobs have an edge over industries where the pay and protections are weaker.

“The one major thing is you’re going to have a decent wage. It may not be the most glamorous but it definitely provides a living,” he says of his job.

Condo conversions also have a broader economic consequences for the city’s capacity to host major conventions and events, according to a City of Toronto report from November 2017. The industry generates an estimated $3.1 billion to the regional GDP annually and supports almost 40,000 full-time jobs.

The review of the city’s hotel capacity and the potential impact of condo redevelopment projects found the number of available hotel rooms has “stagnated since 2000,” and suggested the city “review the potential for the implementation of a hotel accommodation replacement policy.”

“A strong and vibrant tourism industry with a sufficient number of hotel rooms and meeting space is essential to the economic health of Toronto,” the report said.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre—Rosedale) says she has repeatedly advocated for the city to protect both its downtown supply of hotel rooms — and the jobs that come with it.

It’s an issue that resonates with her personally because her father was a unionized hotel worker who eventually lost his job because of downsizing.

“I know the difference a union wage can make for a family,” she said.

Wong-Tam says she wants to see the city require developers to replace hotel jobs “like-for-like” if new condo proposals curtail hotel space.

“In the absence of those levers, we have to ask (developers) and sit down for some hard negotiations,” she said.

Cities like San Francisco have put a moratorium on condo conversions in its convention district and also implemented a charge on the sale of hotel rooms to fund a new convention centre.

But Wong-Tam says she has faced push back from the City of Toronto’s economic development and planning staff because while downtown room supply may be under threat, hotels are thriving in other areas like York Region.

That, she says, will do little to address the cost of job losses for those living in Toronto.

“If they lose their jobs, it’s very difficult to become employed again. It’s a very specific set of skills,” she said. “They do back-breaking work.”
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