On Monday March 9, Mayor LaToya Cantrell delivered a press conference to address New Orleans’ initial confirmed case of COVID-19. Nowadays, these addresses are a fixture, another monotonous feature of the new New Orleans new normal (I just show up for the spicy livechat and the stoic, diligent ASL interpreter). But that first conference was a lot more eventful, thanks to the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance (NOHWA).
Members of the organization disrupted the conference to ask: what would the City do to protect food service workers, entertainers, people in the gig economy—in other words, the very people it constantly touts as being its lifeblood? Mayor Cantrell engaged briefly, but ultimately deflected, saying that the issue was out of her jurisdiction. The intervening days have seen the Louisiana Workforce Commission create new guidelines for the record number of applicants now perusing their user-hostile website. A federal aid bill will also eventually provide some relief. By the time you read this, the first of the month has passed, rent and bills have been due, and the questions raised at that conference still have not been sufficiently answered.
I corresponded with organizer Ashlee Pintos on March 17, the same day NOHWA posted to Facebook “Workers create all the wealth in the world.” Before the virus hit, Pintos told me, the group analyzed tourism tax revenue. They would like to see it used to address the needs of the workers who generated it—like health care. Pintos says NOHWA’s proposed Work Week Ordinance seeks to pass “basic scheduling laws that require employers to provide a schedule to workers 14 days in advance, and 12 paid sick days.”
How you’re going to get to work, what will happen when you get sick—these are fundamental matters even during our regularly scheduled dystopia. Enter COVID-19. “As hospitality workers, we are constantly exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of people per shift,” Pintos told me. “We are at high-risk to not only contract the virus, but also act as carriers.” The vulnerabilities go beyond the physical. “Shut-downs, school closures, and a for-profit health care system affect our abilities to survive,” she pointed out. NOHWA quickly mobilized, penning a letter to the mayor, city council, and governor, including a list of demands.
The degree to which groups like NOHWA are considered radical says a whole lot more about the state of politics than the group itself. Their letter calls for income replacement and health care, which sounds bold in an age where much of the left seems inclined to compromise before getting to the table. Hospitality workers—who are necessarily all up in other peoples’ personal space—demanding Personal Protective Equipment only sounds bold in a place where that essential is so neglected that the City has to hold a drive for first responders. NOHWA doesn’t just advocate for their own needs—they make it a point to center the most precarious among them, calling for citizenship requirements to be waived in relation to all aid. Their demands include measures to protect imprisoned people, a demonstration of solidarity in stark contrast to this moment’s optics of individualistic supply hoarding.
I asked Pintos what the public can do to help hospitality workers, a category she identifies as including, but not limited to “servers, bartenders, cooks, hosts, valet drivers, sex workers, tour guides, souvenir shop workers, hotel workers,” and she pointed me toward the demand letter, which is still collecting signatures. UNITE HERE Local 23 has also launched a campaign to tap Convention Center cash reserves to aid hospitality workers. People doing food delivery, who are officially considered “essential workers,” don’t have paychecks that reflect that distinguished status. Your tips should. During non-pandemic times, a $5 tip is appropriate. Anything less is an insult to people earning subminimum hourly wages to traverse these plague-ridden avenues.
Since the pandemic started, Pintos says many workers in her organization have been laid off. These new economic hardships pile on top of all the usual challenges. “Retaliation from bosses and management will always be an element of our work,” she said. But Pintos is undeterred, seeing NOHWA’s work in the longer term. “This will never keep us from doing the work we know must be done. COVID-19 is absolutely an exposure of capitalism. We will continue to build the mass movement that is necessary to hold politicians accountable.”
Visit the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance at nohwa.org to check out their Bill of Rights, Work Week Ordinance, events, how to join, and for links to their frequently-updated social media (Facebook: @NewOrleansHWA; Instagram: @neworleanshospitalityworkers).