A Return to Work

Jesuit values spark lobbying efforts for employee call-back programs

A Return to Work
A man with face mask and face shield wears a blue uniform and stands in an empty hotel lobby with a pink suitcase. / Image via Shutterstock

Hotel workers, restaurant workers, those who earn their bread in convention centers or sports arenas have felt the economic pain from pandemic-driven closures more than most.

“I am not working,” Leah Williamson, a bartender at Levi’s Stadium, recently told the Santa Clara City Council through tears. “I’m on unemployment. It is not nearly enough. I have used all of my savings and am struggling to get by.”

It’s a call that Jesuit-educated people heard across the state and attempted to address. In September 2020, Jesuits stationed throughout California, including the head of Jesuits West Scott Santarosa, S.J. ’88 and director of campus ministries Dennis Smolarski, S.J.,’69, M.Div., ’79, STM ’79 wrote Gov. Gavin Newsom’89 asking him to sign legislation protecting service workers and their jobs.

Their letter opened with a quote from Pope Francis: “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work.  Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked and still works, who always acts.”

The bill they lobbied for would have required employers to callback laid-off employees in order of seniority as businesses are allowed to reopen. This protection would have prevented employers from discriminating against workers who make more money or have been outspoken about wage theft or other issues when reopening.

“Let’s say there were health and safety problems and they spoke up but had worker protections as employees. The businesses wouldn’t have to recall them to work now if they are laid off because of COVID,” said Ruth Silver Taube J.D. ’93, an adjunct law professor and Workers’ Rights Supervising Attorney at the Alexander Community Law Center who also lobbied for the legislation. Santa Clara students and other faculty and staff also wrote to Newsom.

Ultimately, Newsom vetoed the measure, saying its provisions were potentially too broad—applying to any layoff in any state of emergency whether related to COVID or not.

But, he acknowledged, “I recognize the real problem this bill is trying to fix—to ensure that workers who have been laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic have certainty about their rehiring and job security.”

It’s a problem that Taube, UniteHere, and others are now trying to solve at the local level—going jurisdiction by jurisdiction asking cities to pass rules requiring certain workers to be recalled in order of seniority. So far, Los Angeles and Oakland passed such initiatives. It’s not an ideal way to make wholesale change, Taube says, but it will have to do.

“This short term crisis could become a long term disaster,” says Taube, who also supervises the Santa Clara County Office of Labor Standards Enforcement legal advice line. “We get a lot of calls from hotel workers and others who don’t know how they will support themselves. You can hear the desperation in their voices.”

Leah Williamson, the bartender at Levi’s Stadium struggling to make ends meet, spoke to Santa Clara City Councilmembers as they considered passing an employee recall measure. Knowing that she would be called back to work when the stadium reopens would give her something she’s not had in months, Williamson says: hope.

“This is a light at the end of the tunnel. Because I will know I have the ability to rebuild,” she says.

The measure will come back before the council in November.

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