June 20, 2021

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Behind the Scenes at a Five-Star Hotel

9 min read

As the general manager of the Pierre, Luiggi oversees all the employees. Half work in banquets and events, and the other half run the hotel, working either in the “front of the house,” in jobs that involve interacting with guests, or in the “back of the house,” which includes the laundry room and the kitchens. The back of the house is underground, spread over three basement levels. The main kitchen is on the top level, the laundry room on the bottom, fifty feet below Fifth Avenue.

A new hotel typically sends out its laundry to be cleaned elsewhere, Luiggi explained, but at the Pierre “we do everything—all the sheets, all the towels, all the uniforms, the dry cleaning.” Gilberto Medina, the sixty-nine-year-old foreman of the laundry room, has held his job since 1981. Three of his siblings worked at the Pierre before he did, and one of his earliest memories is of dancing in the laundry room at five years old, when an older sister brought him in to show off his salsa moves. By now, Medina knows the laundry’s operations so well that he can detect a problem with a machine by a slight variation in its hum.

The most popular gathering place for the employees was the cafeteria, on the middle basement level. Before the hotel closed for the pandemic, the cafeteria was open twenty-four hours a day. Stefanie Schultz, a fifty-year-old room attendant, joined her fellow room attendants for lunch each day around noon. Beverly Footman, a telephone operator known as Operator Beverly, could be found catching up with about ten friends most afternoons at 2 P.M. The food was free, and there was a foosball table, two flat-screen televisions, and a massage chair. (Footman told me, “People were so excited to get in that chair.”) Luiggi said, “At the end of the day, to be a five-star hotel, you cannot have a big difference between the front of the house and the back of the house. It’s not ‘Downton Abbey.’ You cannot smile every day, work hard, and not have at least some of the comforts that are appropriate for what you do.”

Sergio Dorval started working as a bartender at the Pierre in 2013. He came from the restaurant world, where workers never knew how long their jobs might last. But at the Pierre, he told me, “you just feel that the energy is different. People are pursuing almost a higher calling outside of work.” With middle-class salaries and stable jobs, the workers could focus on other ambitions: buying a house, saving for their children’s college tuition, investing in the stock market. “As soon as I got to the Pierre and saw the community of homeowners, the community of people who are into investing, I right away gravitated toward them,” Dorval said. After four years at the Pierre, he owned a house, too, in northern New Jersey.

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Harry Cilino, a sixty-six-year-old great-grandfather, found work washing dishes at the Pierre in 2010, after being laid off from his job as a longshoreman. He eventually became a houseman—a position that involves moving furniture and helping to keep the hotel clean—and regularly showed up to work at least an hour early. “I loved it,” he said. “I wish I would’ve started there a long time ago.” Each year, the hotel presents one outstanding employee with a prize, the John Foley Award. (Foley, a legendary doorman at the Pierre, worked there for fifty-four years, retiring in 1984.) After five years, Cilino won the award. “It was a great honor,” he said.

Until this past year, the Pierre held an employee holiday party every winter in the Grand Ballroom. Some years it took place in December, but in 2019 the ballroom was fully booked for that month, so the party was scheduled for January 23, 2020. Khady Gueye, an elevator operator, showed up in a black floor-length dress from her native Senegal and a pair of her signature rhinestone-studded glasses. Jay Laut, the banquet captain, wore the same attire that he wore for work: a tuxedo. Guests enjoyed poached shrimp, foie-gras terrine, gnocchetti with lamb ragù. An ice sculpture, carved in the shape of a snowflake and lit up, served as a centerpiece. If a client had been throwing this party, the cost would have been about two hundred thousand dollars, but the venders, who do business with the Pierre, donated their services. The holiday party, Luiggi told me, was “a celebration of what we do best.”

The Pierre closed its hotel operations two months later, but the building remained open for its co-op residents. Fifteen room attendants continued to come to work in order to service the co-ops: dust, change the sheets, provide fresh towels. Stefanie Schultz, the room attendant, who commuted from Long Island, said, “It was so surreal even going to work. In the beginning, you didn’t see anyone.” Harry Cilino, the houseman, said, “We would go in for a few hours, do what we had to do, but it was really like a ghost town.” Schultz continued working, but Cilino’s last day was March 29th. In April, the hotel’s staffing reached its lowest level, with only about sixty workers coming in.

The Pierre’s laid-off workers were in a better position than those at non-unionized hotels. The Hotel Trades Council made sure that its members held on to their health insurance for the time being, and it later won the right for employees who had accumulated severance to receive it. But for some workers, particularly those who did not have much time on the job, the financial stresses were severe. The union provided listings on its Web site for soup kitchens and food pantries.

Reports of hotel workers dying of Covid-19 flooded into the Hotel Trades Council. The union began posting obituaries on its Web site, including three for workers at the Pierre who died of the virus: Murtland McPherson, seventy-one, who had worked in the laundry room for twenty-nine years; Valentin Constantin, fifty-seven, a houseman who had worked at the Pierre since his early twenties; and Edward Fazio, sixty-two, who had been a storeroom attendant in the main kitchen for three years, after two decades at the Waldorf-Astoria. According to the Hotel Trades Council, about four hundred hotel workers in the union have died of Covid-19.

Gilberto Medina, the sixty-nine-year-old foreman of the laundry room, has held his job since 1981.

Word spread among the Pierre’s workers about those who had died, but not everyone knew which laid-off employees were in the worst financial straits. Vinny Felicione, a sous-chef, sometimes got a glimpse of his co-workers’ struggles; he’s a union delegate, and his colleagues often reached out to him with questions. “They call me up and they’re, like, ‘Listen, Vinny, I’m really scared. I got a wife, I got kids, I got a house. I’ve got to figure out what I have to do,’ ” Felicione recalled.

At first, the Pierre’s laid-off workers assumed that they would be called back to work soon. But as fall approached many workers grew increasingly anxious. “I never thought it was going to be so long,” Pasquale De Martino, the banquet server, said. “I relax at home. Then one month goes by. Two months go by. And five and six and seven. And now you start worrying: How long can we be like this?” De Martino, who is fifty-one, grew up in Italy and moved to New York in 1993. “I have never, never had a problem looking for a job or finding work in New York City,” he said. “It was a shock for many of us.”

Like other New Yorkers stuck at home, the Pierre’s laid-off workers tried myriad strategies to fill the hours. De Martino fostered puppies. Jay Laut taught himself to cook by watching YouTube videos. Sergio Dorval, the bartender, read books, including some recommended by his regular customers. He said that ten of them had contacted him to see how he was holding up, which improved his morale. “Despite all the trauma that is going on, they did not forget about me,” he said.

Those workers with young children at home had additional stresses. Jewel Chowdhury, a fifty-six-year-old banquet server, had three children and a wife who was suffering from heart failure. His second grader’s schooling had become his new job. “You can’t even get out and look for a job,” he said. “You have to be sitting in the home.” He searched for work on Craigslist, but there was none to be found.

Chowdhury, who grew up in Bangladesh, started working at the Pierre in 1992, as part of the room-service division. From his first days at the hotel, he aspired to join its élite army of tuxedo-clad banquet servers, and, at the end of 2018, he finally did. In 2019, he earned about two hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Once the pandemic struck, and he began receiving unemployment and severance payments, his income, he said, was about three thousand dollars a month—less than a fourth of what he had previously made after taxes. Chowdhury owns a house in Queens, and his monthly mortgage payment alone is $2,854. To cover his expenses, he emptied out his 401(k).

On September 17, 2020, the Pierre reopened its hotel operations, becoming one of very few five-star hotels in New York City to accept guests. About a quarter of the workers—some hundred people—were now back, but the kitchens remained closed, and the banquet employees were still laid off. On a few weekends, the occupancy rate reached twenty per cent. “We were a bit optimistic,” Luiggi told me. But then the second wave of Covid-19 arrived. In late October, New York State introduced a rule that visitors from all but five states had to quarantine for fourteen days. “That was the right thing to do, of course, but that just put an end to business,” Luiggi said.

A few days before Christmas, I visited the Pierre. A security guard greeted me with a temperature gun. That day, the hotel’s occupancy rate was ten per cent—eighteen rooms were booked—and the lobby was so silent you could hear every footstep. Maurice Dancer, dressed in a black morning coat, stood with perfect posture at the concierge desk, behind a shield of plexiglass. If he found it depressing to look out at an empty lobby all day, he certainly did not show it. Even with a mask on, he managed to radiate charisma and warmth. “Are you enjoying the wonderful quiet of the Pierre?” he asked.

Luiggi, who met me in the lobby, was wearing a charcoal-colored suit and a white cotton mask. Like the hotel’s founder, he grew up in Corsica. He speaks with a French accent and has worked in hotels in Europe, but he has spent most of his career in New York City. (His résumé includes a stint at the Carlyle.) One of his employees described him to me as “very understanding.” “You would think in his position he’d be a little more on the arrogant side, but he’s not,” the employee said.

Luiggi led me down a hall, up a flight of stairs, and into the hotel’s Cotillion Room. The ceiling is nineteen feet high, and floor-to-ceiling windows line one wall, looking out onto Central Park. Al Pacino danced a memorable tango in this room in the film “Scent of a Woman.” The room can fit three hundred people, but in the previous nine months it had barely been used. On the day I visited, it was empty except for a grand piano. The sight of the deserted space unsettled Luiggi. “It’s very difficult,” he said.

Jennifer Gonnerman
2021-03-15 06:00:00

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