One hundred hotel workers formed a picket line outside the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday, protesting wages they say haven’t kept up with inflation.

The protest offered a window into the local tourism industry, back on its feet after COVID-19 devastation, but unable to shake its reputation for producing many dead-end lower paying jobs.

Even with union representation, the housekeepers and other service workers marching around the hotel made around $16.50 an hour, just $1.50 above the state minimum wage. The workers have been without a contract since their labor agreement expired on May 31.

“It’s very hard to survive,” said Marisol Gomez, 50, who had worked at the Sheraton for more than 21 years, since it opened in April 2001.

The rest of her family is in Mexico, but she has not visited in three years.

“I cannot go back to Mexico to visit all my relatives,” she said, “because I need to pay my bills and my rent.”

Gomez, who makes $16.50 an hour preparing meals in the hotel’s employee cafeteria, said she lives with a roommate to save money. But even splitting the rent at the one-bedroom apartment near Natomas still means $1,000 a month.

Why the Sheraton?

The Sheraton is one of several union hotels in Sacramento whose labor contracts have expired. But union organizers say they targeted the Sheraton because it is the largest unionized Sacramento hotel, and the second largest lodging establishment in the city with 503 rooms.

Martia Rodriguez, the Hotel’s Director of Human Relations, said officials are negotiating in good faith to reach a contract agreement with the union. She refused to go into specifics.

The union said management has offered a 75 cents a year increase for housekeepers and other service workers in a two year contract.

Instead, officials of the Sacramento chapter of the hospitality industry union, United Here, are seeking wage increases that would pay workers $20 an hour at the end of a two-year contract, said Aamir Dean, the President of Unite Here’s Sacramento Local 49.

“The main thing is that we need something right away and we need something more than 75 cents,” he said. “And hotel management is not coming back with anything like that.”

Dean said the the problem is that the five-year contract that expired on May 31 ended with less than robust wages.

Times have changed, but not wages

He said that the contract was negotiated before the state established a $15 an hour minimum wage, before the pandemic put a squeeze on the working class and before the recent inflationary spiral.

Dean said negotiations have not occurred for several months because the hotel won’t move past its stance that wage increases should be limited to 75 cents a year.

As protesters chanted, “we want more; we want it now,” late Wednesday afternoon, the hotel seemed to be operating normally. Guests checked in at the front desk, and on the second floor the University of the Pacific held a reception for law school students who had just taken the bar exam at the convention center.

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A hospitality worker from Local 49 hands out fliers in front of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento on Wednesday during a rally to demand wage increases and address chronic short staffing. Lezlie Sterling [email protected]

The Sheraton Grand is managed by Marriott International which employs the 120 workers at the lodging facility. The hotel’s owner is the CIM group in Los Angeles.

Dean said before the pandemic the hotel had 170 employees, but like other lodging establishments, it can’t find workers, and is down to 120.

The union is involved in separate negotiations with the other hotels: The Citizen Hotel, the Holiday Inn Downtown Arena and The Hilton Arden West. The union is also negotiating its first contract with The Hyatt Centric downtown,which opened in October 2021.

How good is post-pandemic business?

The Sheraton Grand’s management company is doing well overall.

Marriott International has largely recovered from COVID-19. It reported a $377 million profit in the first quarter ending March 31, a 3,000% increase from the same quarter in 2021.

However, the company does not break down financial information for each of the 8,000 hotels it manages.

The Sheraton Grand is heavily dependent on business from the convention center, one block way. a business that has started to return in late 2021 and in 2022, but not at full stream.

While this is the first public protest, Dean said employees have been staging demonstrations and rallies inside the hotel for the last year including marching to management offices.

Despite the current tension between the hotel and the union, the hotel has been able to trade on its union status.

The politics of hotel booking

Organizations such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for example, house board members at The Sheraton because it has a union, instead of at the city’s largest hotel, The Hyatt Regency, which is non-union.

Democratic political groups have also tended to have events at The Sheraton while Republican groups have gone to The Hyatt-Regency,

The pickets Wednesday ranged from employees in their 20s to senior citizens who had worked at the hotel since it opened.

Travis Rogers, 26, who works as a night turndown housekeeper was one of the younger persons on the picket line.

He said inflation has not only eroded his $16.50 an hour wage, but had caused hotel guest to stop leaving room tips.

“It’s been tough,“ he said.

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Sheraton Grand Hotel workers look out the window as Local 49 unite protesters rally in front of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento on Wednesday to demand wage increases and address chronic short staffing. Lezlie Sterling [email protected]

This story was originally published July 28, 2022 11:41 AM.

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Randy Diamond is a business reporter for The Sacramento Bee.