For decades, the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City was one of Southern California's most iconic hotels where guests included presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. But in March, the Hyatt Century Plaza closed to make room for a smaller, more deluxe hotel and about 600 full-time workers – many of them longtime older employees - were laid off.
Hundreds of those workers have been (and continue to be) retrained for new jobs, funded by an $800,000 emergency grant from the California Employment Development Department (EDD.)
“This grant will help Los Angeles-area workers who became unemployed through no fault of their own,” EDD Director Patrick W. Henning, Jr. said in a statement released in July. “Workers who lost jobs when the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza closed will now receive targeted employment services to help get them back to work as soon as possible.”
Over the next few months, KPCC will be following these workers as they try to find jobs in L.A.'s competitive labor market.
Jan Perry, the head of LA’s Economic and Workforce Development Department says she’ll be tracking the workers too, since her agency is administering the state grant.
“We will monitor not only placement as the baseline but also that those who receive training move in an upwards trajectory," said Perry. "That will be a good measure as to whether this is successful.”
Perry says says her goal is for 100 percent of former Century Plaza workers who want to find new jobs to be able to do so but at least so far, the hiring rate is low. Nine months after the Century Plaza closed, only about 115 of the more than 600 former Century Plaza workers have found new jobs, according to Adine Forman, executive director of the Hospitality Training Academy Los Angeles.
Forman says many former workers chose to take time off after putting in decades at the Century Plaza, but now that their unemployment insurance has run out, their job search has taken on a new urgency. She's also hopeful that some former workers will be hired at new hotels scheduled to open next year – such as the Wilshire Grand Center and the Waldorf-Astoria Beverly Hills. But she acknowledges the job search can be daunting.
"The market is tough," said Forman. "A lot of these folks haven't been to an interview for 20-3o years. When they last applied for jobs there were not computers."
Catching up to hotels with iPads and celebrity chefs
The grant gives former workers the option to take up to $3,000 worth of classes to switch careers, but only a handful are doing so. Most are preferring to stick with what they know and love – hospitality – and now they are trying to get to speed with the latest industry trends.
On a recent morning at the Hospitality Training Academy Los Angeles, instructor Johanna Hulme showed a group of former Century Plaza workers how to delicately balance champagne flutes between their fingers and how to set a table.
“A lot of restaurants are starting to move this – when you remove and replace clean silverware you should have a linen on a plate with the clean silverware,” Hulme demonstrated. “We have to be able to work smart and quick. Time is money.”
These might seem like the kinds of basic skills hotel workers would already know, but part of the reason the Hyatt Century Plaza shut down is it was out of step with the times. So were many of its workers, says Forman.
“These workers hadn’t been up-trained for awhile," she said. "At new hotels, room attendants are using iPads to check people in and out of rooms they’ve cleaned and to get more towels. There’s a big trend towards celebrity chefs and high-level cuisines. As L.A.’s food tastes and have and evolved, we need to make the workers’ evolve as well.”
'It was like someone hit you in the face'
For more than two decades, Judith Raymundo took room service orders at the Century Plaza. Last December she got word that the Hyatt Century Plaza would close in March.
“It was like someone hit you in the face," Raymundo said, fighting back tears.
“For me it was a dream job, working in that facility for 20 years,” she said.
Even though she rarely met guests face to face, she felt like she knew them, and she was making their day better.
“I enjoyed working working with people," said Raymundo. "I thought I’m going to retire in this job. And after the 20 years, you get old and suddenly you start all over again and it’s hard.”
Raymundo is in her 50s. She said the job hunt has changed a lot since the 1980s when she last looked for a job. Back then, it was about making a good first impression in an interview. Now she needs a resume that can impress computer algorithms in the initial screening process.
She’s taken every class offered – barista training, food handling, even bookkeeping. But she’s applied for 75 jobs and gotten only a handful of interviews, let alone offers. She has the option to return to the new hotel that will take the Hyatt Century Plaza’s place, but the opening could be years away. Like the other workers, her unemployment insurance recently ran out.
“It’s really sad because my savings is dropping," said Raymundo. "It’s almost gone and that’s why I’m worried.”
Raymundo's former colleague, Martha Salinas, is also worried. She worked at the Century Plaza for nearly 37 years as a hostess and cashier and made almost $20 an hour by the end. She's applied for more than 200 jobs and the only interest she’s gotten is from hotels offering half what she made.
“That’s why I got depressed," she said. "They called me once but they were paying $10 and hour. After making $20 you don’t want to go back to that.”
Salinas knows she’ll have to take a pay cut, but she’s at least hoping to get $16 dollars an hour.
Inflation-adjusted wages for Los Angeles hospitality and tourism workers have fallen by 6.2 percent since 2003, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.
What Salinas really wants is to start a new career as a teacher’s assistant and she recently started taking classes in child development. However, she just turned 60, and she is finding it difficult to compete with younger workers.
“I’m not a young girl anymore," Salinas said. "I mean I do feel young but the numbers are the ones that count.”