New York Hotel Phone Operators Lose Jobs to Automation

This New York Times report is unusual in that it looks at a small number of jobs lost, an event that usually doesn’t register in the big media. The public reads about it when Microsoft lays off thousands, but many of the jobs lost to automation go in smaller increments, one workplace at a time. We don’t notice it happening, until one day the employment universe is far smaller and more limited than it once was. Phone operator and related work like receptionist were once jobs available for non-college graduates (around 70 percent of Americans). Now they are becoming obsolete.

These days, we have all experienced obnoxious automated phone systems (“Press 3 for English”) and wished for a human with whom we could reason. But smart machines are much cheaper so they will only increase.

With basic jobs being gobbled up like cookies at a Christmas party, the prudent policy course for Washington would be to sharply reduce the number of immigrant workers. But no! Donors want even cheaper labor.

The decision of the Republican Congress to quadruple (!) the H-2b visa is all the more infuriating given the automated future we face. The H-2B visa designed to bring in non-farm foreign workers to take jobs in hotels, construction, truck driving, and countless other blue collar jobs sought by millions of Americans.

Automation Claims Jobs of Phone Operators at New York Hotels, New York Times, December 18, 2015

On “Mad Men,” the telephone operator for the Sterling Cooper advertising firm, Marge, is a vital part of the office. But that was decades ago. Today, the notion of women with headsets perched behind wire-laden switchboards feels as antiquated as the clattering of typewriters.

Though operators are an endangered lot, they still exist and can be found in some of New York City’s larger hotels. There are 497 hotel telephone operators working in 161 of these establishments, according to the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, the union that represents them. Their numbers have dwindled, but not as sharply as might be expected. Fifteen years ago, the union counted 571 operators among its members. Union leaders say the ranks of operators have thinned less in New York than in other parts of the country because of union efforts to save their jobs.

Nevertheless, their ranks will be thinning a bit more. The Crowne Plaza Times Square Manhattan, a 795-room hotel on Broadway, plans to shut its telephone department, which has seven operators. The Park Central Hotel on Seventh Avenue is also planning to close its five-person phone department.

In January, the operators at the Crowne Plaza, who had already seen their numbers reduced from 13 people a few years ago, were told they were being replaced with an automated phone service; other hotels are already using similar phone systems. Technical kinks have delayed the changeover.

“I’m glad to still have a job, but not knowing how long it will last, and whether tomorrow they will call you in and tell you that’s it, is hard for me,” said Geneveia Samuel, who has worked at the Crowne Plaza for nearly 21 years, and earns $29.72 an hour, the contractual rate for operators. When Ms. Samuel, 65, first heard she was losing her job, she began making plans to retire and move closer to her son in Atlanta. “Instead I am still living here, alone,” she said. “Just sitting and waiting.”

The International Telecommunication Union, an arm of the United Nations, estimated in 2013 that there were nearly as many cellphone subscriptions in the world (6.8 billion) as there were people (7 billion). Given those figures, it is no surprise that hotel phone operators have less to do.

In one six-month period last year, the operators at the Crowne Plaza answered an estimated 1,000 calls, or just 5.5 calls a day, according to the hotel’s estimates. The operators say those numbers are inaccurate, claiming they answer at least 300 to 500 calls a day.

Regardless, revenue from the phones in hotel rooms in the United States has plummeted in recent years. In 2000, they generated an average of $1,274 per room annually. In 2014, that figure fell to just $216 per room, a drop of 83 percent, according to PKF Hospitality Research.

“It just doesn’t make much sense anymore to have operators, given the number of calls and the cost of labor,” said Greg Hartmann, a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a firm that advises hotels.

Trevor Warner, the chief executive of Warner Consulting Group, which also advises hotels, including the Crowne Plaza, said, “The number one issue is union labor.”

“The New York hotel market is so overbuilt and rates are well below what they need to make money, so hotels are looking at any way they can to cut costs,” he added.

The management of the Crowne Plaza said it was unclear when the hotel would switch to an automated phone system. “We are still in the process of working on it, so decisions on timing have yet to be finalized,” said Sam Grabush, the vice president of operations at Highgate Hotels, which manages the Crowne Plaza and the Park Central. Officials at Highgate declined to comment about the loss of operator jobs.

The delay has been tough on Sabrina Bess, 42, who is the youngest operator at the Crowne Plaza. “The whole thing is incredibly frustrating, and I just want to know what is happening,” Ms. Bess, who has worked at the hotel for 18 years, said. She was in the midst of buying a home in the Poconos when she found out she would lose her job, which she said forced her to suspend her plans.

It is not just technical problems that have delayed the changeover. The hotel is still negotiating with the union over severance pay. A clause in the operators’ contract allows hotels to close phone departments by citing technological changes and giving workers four days of pay for every year worked.

“That is a crazy low number,” said Ms. Bess, the union delegate for the operators. They are pressing for a deal similar to that given to workers at the Waldorf Astoria, who in June received 29 days of pay per year worked following an earlier sale of the hotel.

Operators at the Crowne Plaza were initially offered 19 days severance for every year worked. The latest offer is 24 days, which translates into $78,033 for the most recent hire, and up to $136,213 for the longest-serving employee. The operators are also being offered 120 days of health care coverage.

“After taxes, it will be just half that amount, and when you think about these ladies with kids in college and mortgages, they don’t look at that number as sufficient to give up their jobs,” Ms. Bess said. “They’re scared because they want to know who is going to hire them at their age.”

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