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'It's Really Hard': Former Hotel Worker Navigates Months Of Unemployment In Mass.04:11
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A view of the Omni Parker House Hotel in 2013 in Boston.  (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
A view of the Omni Parker House Hotel in 2013 in Boston. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Usually this time of year, Ahmed Jaya would be welcoming guests to the Omni Parker House for holiday parties. He's worked as a doorman at the historic Boston hotel for 15 years.

"Normally now, we are at the high season," Jaya said. "So, [one] party after the other. Limosine everywhere. The girls, they dress up. The boys, they dress up. It's really good, you know, but not this year."

This year has been rough. Like other hotel workers, Jaya was laid off from the Omni Parker House back in March — around when businesses were ordered to close down because of the pandemic.

The federal COVID relief bill passed by Congress this week would give people $600 relief checks and extend unemployment benefits with up to $300 per week through mid-March. But the package faces an uncertain fate, after President Trump called it a "disgrace" and requested changes. Still, even if the plan goes through, it may not be enough for unemployed Massachusetts residents, like Jaya.

The hospitality industry has struggled during the pandemic. Hotel occupancy in Greater Boston was at just 29% in October, compared to 90% the same time last year, according to the latest data from the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. And statewide hotel occupancy was 38.9% in October, compared to 75.6% the same time last year, according to the Massachusetts Lodging Association.

Meanwhile, Omni Hotels & Resorts received millions from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but did not retain their workers as the program intended. In a statement, the company said it has been unable to bring back all of its workers due to low business and "any amount of the PPP loans that are not forgiven will be returned or repaid with interest per program terms."

Jaya started working at the Omni Parker House just a couple of years after he moved to Massachusetts from Morocco. He now spends most of his days at home in Everett with his wife, and three daughters. He's been looking for jobs, but hasn't had any luck.

"It's really hard, really hard, you know, to find a job during the pandemic," Jaya said.

Jaya is usually the one who works while his wife, Khadija, stays home with the kids ages 10, 6 and a soon to be 1-year-old baby. Jaya said he gets roughly $400 a week in unemployment benefits, but it's not really enough. He also uses SNAP benefits for groceries. And the bills keep coming.

He recently received notice that his health care insurance will expire at the end of the month without another payment. "More bills?" his wife said as he showed her the notice.

"I know. It's like we don't have enough bills and there's another bill," Jaya replied. "What are you going to do? Life is like that."

Jaya hopes life isn't like this for much longer. He has just one more unemployment check coming. He plans to apply for extended unemployment benefits through the state. And like many people, he's hoping for more federal relief. But, he doesn't like what Congress has come up with.

"It comes like a slap on the face. Six hundred. After seven months," Jaya said, frustrated.

Jaya said the COVID relief should be at least what it was in the spring — $1,200. Or even higher, like in Canada.

"You know, to be honest with you, I never wish to be Canadian, but now I wish to be Canadian," Jaya said. "Because when you see Canadian, they get like $2,000 stimulus check every month. That's really good. That's how the government is supposed to stick with their citizens, because we are taxpayers."

But Jaya is finding some of his own moments of relief. He's taken up running during the pandemic "just to keep myself away from depression or something," he said with a laugh.

And he checks in with his older daughters' about their school work. He spent some time one recent afternoon hearing all about his middle daughter's latest coloring assignment.

Jaya said he'd love to go back to work at the Omni Parker House. His union UNITE HERE Local 26 is trying to reach an agreement with the hotel to bring back workers like Jaya once it's fully operating. The union said it has reached similar such agreements with four other hotels in the area.

Jaya said that kind of deal would provide at least some security even as the pandemic continues.

This segment aired on December 24, 2020.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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