Like millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic, Jorge Padilla had hoped to work for many more years before the economic meltdown interrupted his plans. But in March, Padilla was laid off from his job as a banquet server in the Las Vegas area when tourism all but disappeared, and even though his old company has ramped up hiring again, it hasn’t contacted him.

Padilla says that’s because Station Casinos, which owns the Green Valley Ranch Resort Spa and Casino where he worked for nine years, is making anyone who wants a job reapply and is hiring mostly lower-paid workers rather than longtime employees like him. “We worked hard for this company, and we were loyal for many years,” says Padilla, 57, who used to pull in about $13.40 an hour plus tips, which amounted to up to $40 an hour in the busy season. “Now it’s time for them to give us a chance to come back.”

Labor unions agree, and as the bleak U.S. job situation shows no sign of a major revival, they are pushing for legislation to ensure that people who lost jobs in the pandemic get first dibs when those positions reopen. Such ordinances, known as Right to Recall or Right of Recall bills, have passed in both the city and county of Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, and Long Beach. Drafts of similar bills are circulating in Honolulu, Providence, R.I., and in Tacoma, Wash. A Baltimore city council committee approved one such bill in September, but it has not yet been signed by the mayor.

The hospitality industry says such bills hamper efforts by companies struggling to survive and slow economic recovery. “This type of mandate creates a new operational burden as employers are trying to get back to business and reopen as best they can,” says Troy Flanagan, the vice president of government affairs and industry relations at the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Among other things, Flanagan says some of the mandates give workers a few days to decide whether they want to return to work, which delays quick hiring.

Without legal guarantees, though, older workers like Padilla say they’ll struggle to find jobs in a crowded labor market. “They’re looking for young people, they never think, ‘this old man, he dedicated his life to this company,’” he says. “But I’m ready to go back to work.”

Station Casinos said in a statement provided to TIME that 1,300 workers who were laid off have returned to work, making the same or more money than they did before the layoffs, “unless they took a job in a different classification.” It did not respond to questions about whether it was also hiring new workers for lower pay in place of longer-term workers. The company’s website has dozens of jobs posted, including for a part-time food server and a bus person who could earn, according to the website, “up to $12.65 an hour.”

The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents some Station Casinos employees, says that 58% of Station Casinos workers in its bargaining unit have lost their jobs and that those who want to return to work are being asked to reapply as new employees and are receiving $3-$4 less per hour than they did previously. It showed TIME a worker’s earnings statement that included a line in all caps saying: “Your hourly rate has been changed from 16.3000 to 13.1000,” indicating a pay cut.

As jobs return, no guarantees

The U.S. economy shed 22.3 million jobs between March and April alone, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and these losses were concentrated among lower-wage jobs in fields like hospitality. About 14 million jobs have come back since then, but there’s no guarantee they went to the same people who lost them. About 10% of firms who were adding employment between February and June were growing from external hires, rather than from recalls, even if they had shed their initial workforce, according to a July paper by economists from the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago.

This is not necessarily surprising; employers often use recessions to pay new workers less because they have such a large pool of potential applicants to choose from, says Ruth Milkman, the Labor Studies Chair at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies.

The pandemic has particularly decimated the minority workforce; Latinos lost 6 million jobs between February and April and have only gained about half of them back; Black workers lost 3.5 million jobs between February and April and have gained 1.3 million back, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Without a resurgence in the hospitality and entertainment jobs that were dominated by Latino and Black workers—which is unlikely as long as the pandemic continues— these individuals could experience long-term financial hardship. Because many were in low-wage jobs in the first place, they don’t have the savings that higher-wage workers might have collected.

Unions say that without legislation to prevent them from doing so, hotels and hospitality companies will lay off older workers who may make more money and workers who have advocated for unions.

“Employers have taken this moment to terminate wholesale entire workforces up and down our jurisdiction,” says Kurt Petersen, the co-president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents more than 30,000 hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona. “They are hiring back selectively who they want to bring back, and I think they are going to want to whiten the workforce, make it younger, and purge ‘troublemakers,’ and higher cost employees.”

The Las Vegas Strip on Aug. 23, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated tourism in the city, leaving laid-off workers like Jorge Padilla struggling to get by and hoping their former employers give them their jobs back.

Bill Clark—CQ/Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

The hospitality industry says it wants to bring back trained employees but that the need for them is not yet there.

Some employees who had seniority might not be trained in the work that hotels need them to do when they’re recalled, says Amy Rohrer, president of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association, which opposes the Baltimore ordinance. “We need flexibility to bring back the employees who will ensure smooth operations for the hotel and make our guests feel comfortable when they’re traveling,” she says. “Who is to say that an employee with four years of experience, who is very eager to return back to work, is not the right employee over a five-year employee who may not be as eager to return to work?”

A California veto, but success in San Francisco

The hospitality industry scored a victory in California in September when Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a statewide right to recall bill, saying it placed “too onerous a burden on employers navigating these tough challenges.”

But efforts are succeeding on a local level. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in June passed an emergency ordinance requiring businesses to offer jobs to former employees ahead of new applicants, in order of seniority. Emily Haddad, a laid-off barista, was among those who spearheaded the effort.

Haddad worked for the San Francisco bakery Tartine and helped organize a union drive that culminated in a vote on March 12 on whether employees wanted to be represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) (Some of the ballots have been challenged, and the National Labor Relations Board is still investigating the election results.)

When the city issued a stay at home order a few days later to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Tartine let go of workers from its four San Francisco locations. They included Haddad. A few weeks later, more people lost their jobs when Tartine’s Berkeley bakery was closed after the hotel housing it terminated its contract.

When Tartine started bringing people back as it opened for takeout, Haddad says it recalled workers who had been vocally anti-union and passed over others. “I will probably never get hired back to Tartine because I was one of the main vocal union organizers,” she says.

Frustrated by their experience, Haddad and her co-workers, alongside the ILWU, helped persuade the Board of Supervisors to pass the right to recall ordinance, which applies to employers with 100 or more employees who laid off at least 10 people due to the pandemic. It is not retroactive.

A spokeswoman for Tartine says the bakery does not hire based on an employee’s view about unions. The company says it began rehiring on May 15, that “all employees were recalled based on classification seniority,” and that it has strictly adhered to the San Francisco ordinance since its passage.

Workers in jurisdictions without right to recall legislation have no remedy. Some are finding that government programs meant to protect them, such as the Payroll Support Program under the CARES Act, which compensated the aviation industry to preserve jobs, are not effective.

Jilma Guevara, 58, worked as a security agent for Eulen America, a contractor at Miami International Airport, for six years, inspecting cargo put on passenger planes. She was laid off March 23 and told that she’d have to reapply for her job; despite doing so twice, she says she’s heard nothing. She thinks it’s because she was trying to help organize a union.

Guevara says she always got positive feedback from her supervisors at work. “They had no reason to lay me off, but they found an opportunity with the pandemic,” she says. Other Eulen workers say that because they were laid off and not temporarily furloughed, they must undergo new background checks and fingerprinting, at their own expense, if they want to reapply for jobs.

An Oct. 9 report from the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that Eulen was one of more than a dozen companies that laid off workers despite receiving money from the Payroll Support Program. Eulen received $26 million from the Program, which was part of the CARES Act and which provided aviation companies with financial assistance to cover paychecks of workers to protect their jobs. The report found that the Treasury Department allowed some companies to receive funding and still lay off workers.

Eulen said in a statement provided to TIME that it had to reduce its workforce early in the pandemic before it received any government support. Its goal is to hire as many former employees as possible, the company said, and it does so by contacting those in good standing and inviting them to apply.

A protester at Miami International Airport on May 12, 2020, where workers were demonstrating against layoffs by the Eulen America aviation company.

Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Economic data suggests that when people lose their jobs, they usually cycle through short-term and lower-paid jobs, sometimes even switching fields, before finding something stable. They often end up in jobs that pay less, says Robert E. Hall, a Stanford economics professor who recently co-authored a paper looking at the impact of job losses on individuals. One study showed that men who were laid off when the unemployment rate was above 8% lost out on about 2.8 years of earnings. By contrast, many furloughed workers, who eventually get called back to their jobs, preserve their pay rate.

The disruption that comes from a layoff is one reason that some European governments began paying companies to keep workers on payrolls during the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program in the U.S. sought to do a similar thing, but some employers that received government money did not keep people on payrolls.

An offer she couldn’t accept

Some laid-off workers say they’re already getting offered lower-paid jobs—sometimes at the same company where they’d worked before. That’s what Caitlin Hickey says happened to her. Hickey, 31, was a regional supervisor for recreational programs and events at a rock climbing gym in San Diego, and was making around $26.50 an hour.

When the pandemic hit and business tanked, HIckey says the gym wanted her to run an indoor summer camp. She says she refused because of health concerns and was laid off but told she’d be in good standing if she wanted to reapply with the company when it started hiring again. A week later, she says the gym emailed her and other laid-off workers with an offer for a front desk job in Reno, Nev., 560 miles away, paying $13.50 an hour.

“It took me too long to get to $26 an hour—six years—that I couldn’t start over,” says Hickey, who turned down the offer. She’s now considering going back to school.

The company Hickey worked for, Mesa Rim Climbing Centers, says it laid off 125 employees and furloughed 65 at the beginning of the pandemic and has since recalled 61 people at the same position and wages, and one person for a different job. When it opened a new facility during the pandemic, it did email laid-off workers to let them know about open front desk positions, the company said. Those jobs may have been lower-paid than their previous jobs, but higher than minimum wage, it said.

Being asked to start over at a lower wage, without the benefits of vacation days or health insurance or other things they’d taken years to earn, is exactly what workers like Jorge Padilla are afraid of. He and his wife both worked for Station Casinos, and they’re now living off savings and unemployment. His health insurance, a benefit from his former job, expired in September, and he says he’ll run out of money in a few months.

Padilla liked his job, even though during the busy season he’d sometimes work until 10 p.m. and have to be back at work the next morning at 3 a.m. But he’d perfected the challenges of carrying a tray with 10 plates on it and of creating relationships with guests.

He’s ready to be doing that job again, and it breaks his heart that a stranger may be taking his place.

 

Contact us at letters@time.com.