Diplomat hotel workers protest to keep their jobs after a yearlong furlough

Yadira Lopez, Rob Wile
·4 min read

Hotel workers at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood have been furloughed for nearly a year. Now, their jobs hang in the balance.

Unlike other South Florida hotels such as the Hyatt and the Fontainebleau that have inked agreements to bring back furloughed employees when they reopened, the Diplomat, which is still closed amid the pandemic, has not made any guarantees. As per a union contract, if no deal is reached by March 21, at least 650 workers — many of them with decades of employment at the Diplomat — could face termination.

Without an extension, the hotel would be free to hire new workers with less experience, and pay them lower wages. Hundreds of the Diplomat’s unionized workers lined up in front of the hotel Friday morning to protest their employer’s inaction. Chants of “We want to work” in English and Spanish were drowned out by drivers honking in solidarity with the workers.

“All we are asking is that when business comes back, we should come back,” said Julio Lopez, a doorman at the Diplomat for 16 years. “It should be us.”

“I’ve burned a lot of my youth working here,” Lopez said, laughing. But he’s “a baby” compared to some of his coworkers who’ve been with the company for two, even three decades, Lopez said.

Like Lysias Gaspard, a 63-year-old waiter who worked at the old and now demolished Diplomat location since 1981. Gaspard has worked at the new location for 19 years. He was used to bringing in at least $800 a week in tips and wages, but now his family has had to rely solely on his wife’s income as a nurse and his $275 weekly unemployment checks.

As he spoke, Gaspard fist-bumped longtime colleagues he hadn’t seen in nearly a year and who came out to the demonstration.

“We are like a family here and you can’t break up a family,” Gaspard said.

Ines Santisteban was going on 19 years as a housekeeper at the hotel before she was furloughed last March. Santisteban said she’s struggled to find work. Her family goes to food banks and has cut back on things including cable TV to make ends meet. She recently got a health insurance plan after her coverage through the hotel expired in December.

Santisteban stays in touch with her longtime colleagues through a Whatsapp group. Many of her fellow housekeepers in their 50s are uninsured. Some have chronic conditions such as diabetes, she said, but they’re unable to pay for coverage and are counting on returning to work to once again access healthcare.

“I used to think that I was important to this hotel,” Santisteban said. “I worked so many Christmases and New Year’s for the Diplomat. But it turns out we’re being treated as just a number.”

By leaving its employees out in the cold, the Diplomat is only hurting itself, argued Wendi Walsh, secretary treasurer of Unite Here 355, the local hotel workers union.

“You have longtime guests who have been seeing the same faces for decades,” Walsh said. “They’re used to seeing the same bartenders and the same banquet servers.”

Replacing the workers would mean getting rid of people with decades of experience in hospitality, she said.

In a statement, a representative for Brookfield Asset Management said it did not know when it would be able to reopen the hotel. The Diplomat is taking reservations for June, but there’s no guarantee the 1,000-plus room hotel will reopen then.

“Unlike smaller, tourist-supported hotels, group hotels like the Diplomat cannot function without conventions and events operating at full or near-full capacity,” said senior vice president for communications Andrew Brent. “It is an unfortunate reality for the Diplomat community and its workforce, as well as all of the local restaurants and businesses that rely on conventions and the people they bring.”

He declined to directly address the rehiring question.

Originally constructed in 1958, the Diplomat was considered Broward’s entry in South Florida’s “swank” era before it fell on hard times and shuttered in 1991. It would stay dormant for a decade before an $800 million rebuilding at the turn of this century made it the then-most expensive hotel project in South Florida history.

It has long maintained union ties, including hosting numerous labor conventions over the years and has been the subject of multiple rescue initiatives by union pension funds from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.