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Higher wages for 1,000 hospitality workers in New Orleans after unions delve into Sodexo

The union, which represents about 1,000 New Orleans hospitality workers at Caesars Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, has reached an agreement with employer Sodexo to significantly increase wages and improve benefits .

The new deal is the culmination of a year-long campaign by Unite Here Local 23 to recruit workers and negotiate a deal that would apply to all chefs, bartenders, concession stand workers and others working at all three major venues in the city.

More money, more flexibility

The contract is the first for reorganized workers at the Superdome and Smoothie King Center and represents new terms for Sodexo employees at the convention center, whose contracts expired late last year.

“This will be a huge, huge relief and is a historic victory for our members,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of the New Orleans union, who noted that hospitality workers have been particularly hard hit by the sharp rise in prices for basic goods and services.

Terms of the new three-year contract include a minimum starting wage of $16 an hour, versus $10.50 to $11 an hour for non-tipped positions. The terms mean immediate increases of $5 an hour for some Sodexo New Orleans employees with longer tenure, while others are paid an average of $4 an hour more over three years.

A key element of the deal will allow workers at each of the three venues to work at the other two, meaning the jobs for many will be more like full-time work than gig work, Patrick-Cooper said.

“We’re really proud of that because it means more stable working hours and people can earn more contributions to their health care and paid time off,” she said.

‘win, win’

For Sodexo, the deal will give the company more predictability in terms of available labor and less reliance on temp agencies to fill gaps, which can be significantly more costly.

Paul Pettas, a spokesman for Sodexo Live, the subsidiary that employs workers at the New Orleans venues, said the company is happy with the new terms.

“This deal will ensure increased economic vitality for those who have made careers with us at Caesars Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and the Morial Convention Center (and ensure groundbreaking pay increases and expanded member health benefits,” Pettas said.

vote for deal

Unite Here Local 23 members began voting on the terms Tuesday and were due to ratify the deal by the close of voting on Wednesday, with members having already expressed overwhelming support for the new terms, Patrick-Cooper said.

Ciry Council President JP Morrell welcomed the breakthrough.

“This settlement will change the lives of these new union members and also demonstrates Sodexo’s commitment to the hard-working citizens of New Orleans,” he said via text message.

Another element of the agreement is that seniority is recognized and senior staff are given preference for certain work locations. That means longer-stay employees can work at premium bars for New Orleans Saints home games, for example, which can mean a $600 to $700 increase in tips.

The hospitality and tourism industry is the largest employer in New Orleans, although the frequently changing nature of the work has made it difficult to estimate the total workforce. A 2019 study estimated the total number of hospitality workers in the city at about 12,000, or about 6% of the city’s total employment.

Patrick-Cooper said the pandemic and Hurricane Ida helped the union organize because it became a focal point of aid and support.

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“We’ve spoken to so many hospitality workers, from those who work at Popeyes and McDonald’s to mom and pop businesses and the larger venues,” said Patrick-Cooper. “We’ve received so many requests for unionization,” she said after Hurricane Ida.

Maryland-based Sodexo Live, the US subsidiary of France-based parent company which employs nearly half a million people worldwide, had negotiated with Unite Here in several cities over the past year.

The union threatened a strike last November if Sodexo did not agree to come to the negotiating table on new contracts in New Orleans and Las Vegas; Orlando Fla.; Detroit; and Sacramento, California, all of which have large convention centers that contract Sodexo for catering services.

Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, Unite Here has been one of the fastest growing unions in the broader AFL-CIO confederation, although union membership has long continued to decline.

Recent years have provided conflicting evidence of union growth, partly because the pandemic has disrupted the workforce in many ways. The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency, has reported a large increase in petitions to organize in the past two years.

However, overall union membership continued to fall after a surge early in the pandemic, with the temporary spike likely reflecting unionized workers being more likely to remain employed at the time, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank.