The secret behind hotel workers making $19 an hour in Boston

June 11, 2015

A training center in New England trains low-skill, minimum-wage workers for jobs that pay $19.36 an hour with benefits.

Back in Cape Verde, Margarida Jurgensen owned a restaurant. It was small, just like the island nation off the coast of West Africa that she called home. But it was hers. She left for a better life eight years ago, but found herself making burgers in a Boston McDonald's. The irony stung. She was stuck there for six years. Though she slowly moved from cook to cashier to night-shift manager, her pay remained around $8.50 an hour, with no benefits. Jurgensen, who is raising two daughters, doesn't say much about those years except, "it wasn't a good experience."

This is what Marie Downey calls a dead-end job. Downey, the executive director of the Boston Education, Skills and Training Corp., has seen this story throughout her career as a social worker. Workers like Jurgensen don't have benefits or predictable schedules or sick time. They want to make time to spend with their families. And someday they want to buy a home. But most can't do that on the pay of a low-skill, minimum wage job.

Downey offers them a way out. BEST Corp., a nonprofit workforce development agency, operates the Hospitality Training Center, which prepares low-skill workers for higher-paying jobs in the hotel industry, such as room attendant, dishwasher, cook and steward.

Jurgensen heard about the program through a friend two years ago, and completed a series of classes that taught problem solving, teamwork, communication and English skills, and customer service. She now is a room attendant at the Ritz-Carlton, which pays more and offers benefits.

"This was the greatest opportunity that I've ever had because they helped me find a job," says Jurgensen. "From $8.50 an hour, now I'm making $19. How great is that? Right now, I'm so happy."

One of her daughters just graduated high school and is off to college, for which Jurgensen will help pay. Jurgensen is also enrolled in a house-buying program through the Hospitality Training Center which goes into effect two years after completion and will help her own a home in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. She is building the better life she wanted when she moved to the U.S. from Cape Verde.

"Employers need to invest in their workers so workers can invest in their families and in their communities," Downey said. "It's about the dignity of work. Hard-working people should be able to feed their families and earn a living wage."

For five to six weeks, students participate in classes that range from computer training and specific job instruction to English, GED, and citizenship courses, with class sizes between 12 and 15 students. In some of those classes, there could be students from 10 different countries, Downey says.

The program has an apprenticeship placement rate of 90 percent, where students start off making $16.50 an hour with benefits. After three months, they become employees, earning over $19 an hour. BEST Corp. tracks graduates for three to five years after they leave the program, and has found that the trainees stay in those positions at a 91 percent rate.

Since the program only trains as many people as the number of hotel jobs available, it's competitive. This year, for example, students went through three rounds of interviews to fill the 90 spots that were available. Around 200 people in the last four years have completed courses. But those numbers could start growing substantially. There are 30 more hotels in the development pipeline in Boston, and nearly a dozen of those will open in the next two years.

The program was borne out of the collective bargaining agreement between the hotel industry and the hotel workers union: UNITE HERE Local 26. It was initially intended for union members only, but has expanded to unemployed and underemployed people outside the industry. For the latter, training is funded by private and public grants. Brian Lang, the union president, thinks this partnership could be a model.

"This is actually an area where we persuaded the private sector to invest in the training in a very big way," he says. "It actually ends up being a private sector-labor management initiative. Because of the private-sector commitment here, it's much more sustainable."

And the local hotel industry is on board. John Murtha, the general manager of the Omni Parker House, says he's happy to hire graduates of the hospitality program, and informs the nonprofit when there are job openings.

"We have very good luck with those graduates," Murtha says. "They come prepared and eager and understanding what's expected of them. The job market in Boston for many of our positions is tight, regardless of what the economy is like. If there's any resource we can reach out to find qualified candidates for employment, why wouldn't you use it?"

It's a win-win for the industry and the workers themselves.