Abdelhakim Ejjair has been on his feet for nearly all of the past seven hours, but he is still moving fast. It is just past 2 p.m.,and he walks out of the Downtown Hyatt at a near-trot, headed for his van after a shift as a server assistant at One South restaurant in the hotel. He has been up since 6 a.m., but Ejjair's haste is inspired not by the fact that he is leaving his job, but that he is already on his way to another. If he can rush home, he should have time to grab lunch and maybe even nap for a few minutes before he leaves for his second job as a lot attendant at the Hertz rental car facility at the Indianapolis International Airport.Today, he is allowing me to accompany him on the transition.
Ejjair has been working at the Hyatt for 14 years but still makes only $9 per hour, not counting the occasions when a server shares tips with him. He is paid slightly more at Hertz, but neither job provides much in the way of benefits. Ejjair cannot afford the premiums for family health insurance coverage through the Hyatt, so his two children are covered by Medicaid and his wife goes without coverage. Ejjair and I climb into his van, which has an odometer creeping up on 200,000 miles, a mysterious knock coming from the engine, and a laminated verse from the Koran hanging from the dashboard.We head northwest out of Downtown.
In accented English revealing the Arabic and French he grew up speaking in his home country of Morocco, he patiently answers my questions while driving. Yes, he would prefer to work just one job. "If they pay me good, I would not have to work two jobs." He would like to buy a home one day, if he could save the money. Yes, he is tired. Ejjair is short and slight, with his black hair still dominating over the flecks of gray, and he looks younger than his 47 years. But he has dark circles under his eyes and admits that he sleeps only about five hours on the nights between his double-shift days.
Ejjair arrived in the U.S. from Morocco on April 27, 1998, a date he recites from memory. He had worked as a draftsman in his home country, and his skills earned him a visa to move to the U.S. He hoped to become an engineer, but he learned that he would need extra training even to be a draftsman in the U.S., and he could not afford the classes. So he got a job as a dishwasher at the Hyatt and taught himself English, first by watching TV and writing down the words, then through CDs once he could afford a computer. Ejjair remembers his embarrassment when people laughed at his early attempts to speak English. "I am still picking words," he says.
But Ejjair has become an advocate for the drive to unionize the Hyatt. "Many other people want the union, too, but they are scared," he says. Any hesitation Ejjairs had evaporated when his counterparts at unionized Hyatt hotels showed him their paychecks."It is the same corporation, and they do the same job as me, but it is not the same paycheck," he says. "They get paid good money, and they pay very little for health coverage. My paycheck is too low."
So Ejjair works 60- to 70-hour weeks, including shifts at the Hyatt where he is on his feet busing tables for every minute except his half-hour break. Many days, he leaves home for his first job before his children are awake, and he comes home from his second job after they have already gone to bed. I ask him if he is concerned about how long he can keep up this pace. He shrugs. "I don't promise myself. It is hard to tell."
In addition to talking with Ejjair while he transitioned between jobs, I decided it would also be good to get a sense of Ejjair at work. On a breakfast visit to the One South restaurant, I saw him across the room, carrying off dirty dishes while wearing a chocolate brown uniform shirt, a "Hakim" silver nametag and a long black apron hanging well below his knees. The restaurant setting was comfortable and pristine, and the server was charming and attentive. The chicken and egg white breakfast sandwich, including bacon and a side of fried potatoes, was delicious.
Countless times, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy similar meals in similar settings. But it had never been so clear that my pleasure was directly connected to someone else's labor. Like most American consumers, I rarely think that the price for my shoes or cell phone is directly connected to the sub-poverty wages of those who manufactured them. But in this case, I could not ignore the connection between my affordable meal and the toil of a tri-lingual trained draftsman making nine bucks an hour.
Labor advocates insist that consumers should feel no guilt about the cost of hotel rooms and meals in non-unionized hotels, saying the corporations who own the hotels make plenty of profit to allow them to pay better wages and still keep prices low. Hyatt Hotels, for example, recently reported third quarter 2012 profit of $23 million on almost $1 billion in quarterly revenueBut I could not help thinking back to my visit to Ejjair's home, where I met his shyly smiling wife and watched his curly-haired preschool children play on the carpet. I had discussed Moroccan home design and Muslim concerns over the defamation of the prophet Muhammad, and Ejjair shared his plans for his children's schooling.
Suddenly, I did not feel so good about my Hyatt meal anymore. I paid my bill and got up to leave. As I walked out the restaurant door, I looked back to see if I could catch a last glimpse of Ejjair at work. I did.
He was cleaning up after me.
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