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Hungry For Hilton's Jobs
January 16, 2005
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 said.

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 1,500 applicants.

"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 T-shirts.

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 year.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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