Hungry For Hilton's Jobs
January 16, 2005
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
Courant Staff Writer
Some of the Hartford area's neediest workers slogged through 5 inches
of snow last week for a shot at a $10-an-hour job.
They packed into Hartford's Union Station by the hundreds to apply for about
75 full- and part-time positions at the renovated Hilton Hartford, scheduled
to open March 1. The crowd didn't thin for hours. Long lines snaked around
the train station. And some job seekers waited two hours for an interview.
Daniel Santeago was one of them.
Santeago, who now makes $7.50 an hour as a warehouse worker, sees the chance
to get ahead with a better-paying job at the Hilton. He has experience, having
worked at hotels in his native Puerto Rico.
With job growth in the hospitality industry already exceeding that of other
industries in the state, last week's heavy turnout bodes well for filling
hundreds of new hotel positions in downtown Hartford in the coming months.
That stands in sharp contrast to other industries, particularly manufacturing,
that are going begging for suitable workers.
In addition to the Hilton, two other hotels are expected to open in 2005:
the 409-room Marriott at Adriaen's Landing in June and a 110-suite extended-stay
hotel at the former Bond Hotel this fall. And last week, plans for two more
hotels near Adriaen's Landing were announced that could add another 260 rooms.
Although some economists worry about the increase in hospitality and leisure
jobs in the face of shrinking employment in the higher-paid financial services
industry, others say it is a clear reality, like it or not.
"I don't think we can be picky anymore about the jobs that we create," said Donald
L. Klepper-Smith, a New Haven economist. "We'd all like to see high-value jobs
come to the state. But jobs are jobs."
Connecticut is struggling to regain jobs lost in the last recession, and
may have ended last year with fewer jobs than at the close of 2003. The jobs
report tallying last year's gains and losses is due Jan. 24.
For Santeago, a job as a front desk worker at the Hilton would give him a
$2-an-hour edge, health benefits and the chance to put some money away.
Santeago, 30, and his girlfriend share an apartment in Hartford, and both
work at the same distribution warehouse in Windsor Locks, pulling down the
same hourly wage. Before taxes, that comes to a combined income of a little
more than $31,000 a year.
"I'd like to buy a house, but right now there is nothing left over to save," Santeago
The Hilton is in the midst of a $25 million, top-to-bottom renovation by
The Waterford Group. Jobs at the Trumbull Street hotel are seen as attractive
because they carry higher union wages and retirement benefits.
Keeping the hotel under union stewardship was a key issue when Mayor Eddie
A. Perez successfully blocked the sale of the hotel to another developer.
That buyer - The Procaccianti Group - was a nonunion company that wanted
to close the hotel and dismiss its union workforce.
Under the sale to the Waterford Group, Waterford also closed the hotel, but
agreed to honor the union contract, including accumulated pension benefits.
Union organizers say that about 130 workers want their old jobs back - nearly
all of the housekeepers, servers, front desk workers and others who previously
worked at the hotel.
In addition to those workers, Waterford said it will need more because the
renovated hotel is expected to attract more business. Before the sale, Hilton
was threatening to pull its name because former owner MeriStar Hospitality
hadn't kept up the 33-year-old building.
"We're going from a tired, worn-out building to a four-diamond-star-rated facility," said
Len Wolman, Waterford Group's chief executive.
Four diamond stars means "upscale in all areas," according to AAA.
The Hilton took more than 700 applications at the job fair. Hilton managers
had an inkling that turnout might be heavy. At a recent job fair for the
new Charter Oak Marketplace shopping center in Hartford, there were nearly
"But we were pleasantly surprised, given the weather," Hilton general manager
Russ Abell said.
The 75 workers who are hired will push the hotel's workforce at its opening
to above 200, including managers. But Abell said the hotel will likely tap
into the applicant pool for future waves of hiring as business increases.
Some applicants had already worked in hotels. Others had retail experience
dealing directly with customers, skills that could potentially be used at
the Hilton. Still others were curious about what the Hilton had to offer.
Getting in on the ground floor of such an ambitious makeover brought new
hope for job stability to many of those attending last week's job fair. They
came dressed in everything from suits and ties to winter coats worn over
Hartford's Dwight Smith said he believes the Hilton will need a full workforce
because the renovations will make it a top choice for travelers and occupancy
will be high.
"If I get in there, I would be there for a while," Smith, 25, said.
Smith said he would be happy with a job as a bell person or kitchen worker.
Under the latest union contract at the Hilton, those jobs pay $9.80 or so
to start, with wages rising to $12.80 or so after a four-month probation.
Smith last worked as temporary help, assembling water filters at a factory
in South Windsor. There, he made $9.25 an hour.
While waiting for her name to be called for an interview, Deloise Hendricks,
a West Hartford resident, joked with other applicants also hoping to be chosen
for a job.
But after her interview, Hendricks acknowledged that life wasn't easy last
Hendricks said she was laid off from her office assistant's job at health
insurer Aetna nearly two years ago. Unemployment compensation ran out months
ago. Job hunting hasn't gone well. She and her husband have had to get along
on his salary as a property manager.
"We have a daughter in college," Hendricks said. "It's been a really rough year."
Hendricks said she wants to earn at least $10 to start, perhaps as a clerical
worker or housekeeper.
Some of the applicants attending last week's job fair were referred by agencies
that help the unemployed in Greater Hartford find work. One of those, Capital
Workforce Partners, hosted the event outside its new business services center
at the train station.
Another, Hartford-based STRIVE, helps the low-income unemployed find work.
STRIVE's employment specialist, Corendis Bonner, said the view of entry-level
hotel positions being dead-end jobs is not true.
"With consistency and hard work, it is possible to move up," Bonner said.
For instance, a worker who starts as a dishwasher can move into the hotel's
banquet operations and into a supervisory position, Bonner said. And that
can be accomplished over a two- to three-year period, she said.
Sometimes outside training and education may be needed, Bonner said. But
often on-the-job training and sheer longevity is enough, she said.
Some job fair applicants were employed, but they said they were looking for
a better job.
That's what Ixia Lopez, 28, a forklift driver at a Bloomfield distribution
warehouse, was after. She now earns $8.30 an hour, and hopes that her past
hotel experience in her native Puerto Rico will help her land a housekeeping
job at the Hilton.
Looking around the job fair, she knew there would be a lot of competition.
Lopez, of Hartford, was, however, heartened to hear that a new Marriott hotel
will be opening later this year in downtown Hartford.
"Where do I get the application for that?" she asked.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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