The pandemic hit Paula Agras’s students hard.
Some of them, as hospitality workers, have been unemployed for more than a year. Some lost family members due to COVID-19.
But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Agras’s students logged into an online class, where they danced to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” The students celebrated taking a step toward a goal that some of them have had for decades — learning to speak English.
“I want some day to speak full English. I want to read, speak, and write… I need to talk better, because in my job, I know I need it, every day,” said Marlene Calderon, one of the students, during the class. “That’s my dream. Some day, I’ll do.”
“You’re doing it right now!,” Agras replied.
The workers are among hundreds who have taken an English class over the last year from the Hospitality Training Academy, a partnership between labor union UNITE HERE Local 11 and employers. As the industry lost jobs by the thousands in California, the academy trained laid-off workers so that when they return they can use their skills to get to a better career.
The academy, funded by employers through collective bargaining agreements with the union, provides free training for workers, who don’t have to be members of the union. The academy ramped up its classes during the pandemic — 24 English classes are among more than 250 offered.
It’s been challenging for the academy to help those workers get back to work: Of the hundreds who went through the academy’s English classes, 24 found a job as of early February. And although the academy is helping them, immigrant workers don’t have access to many job training programs in general because of systemic barriers.
Federal laws block undocumented workers from accessing many of those programs. Because the programs are often measured by and funded based on how quickly they can get people to jobs, English learners who need more time can get left behind.
As of 2014, more than six million out of nearly 40 million Californians identified themselves as English learners. Yet they accounted for only 3.7% of those who took part in workforce development programs.
The workers who have taken the academy’s classes say the impact of those lessons can be broader than simply getting a new job. It gave them something to look forward to and a sense of accomplishment during a period in which so many things have gone wrong.
“I can show that I’m capable, to develop myself with a second language of Spanish and English,” said Maritza Morales, one of Agras’s students. A former housekeeping supervisor, she was laid off from the Beverly Wilshire hotel last March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pandemic hammers immigrant workers
Foreign-born workers make up about a third of those employed in California’s hospitality industry, according to Census data.
With the industry shedding nearly 700,000 jobs in California since February of 2020, a rate of job loss matched by no other sector, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers found themselves without a job during the pandemic.
Some hotel workers like Morales have job protections, meaning they can go back to work when their employers open up again. But not all.
And even many of those with job protections have gone months without getting a paycheck.
“I’m waiting for them to call,” said Morales, whose workplace is open but not fully enough to bring her back.
The academy has offered English classes for years as part of its curriculum, in which courses range from soup preparation to basic accounting. But the academy significantly expanded the number of English classes offered during the pandemic.
Learning English can lead workers to find better jobs within the hospitality industry — think of servers or bartenders, who can get tips — or even transfer their skills to a new sector of work, said Adine Foreman, the academy’s executive director.
“If they want to cook, they have to be able to read the recipe,” she said. “It opens up their options. It opens up the possibility of more pay. It opens up the possibility of finding passion in some way.”
The pandemic gave workers, who suddenly found themselves with a lot of time, a chance to get the training they wanted and needed, Foreman said.
Calderon, 50, worked as a laundry attendant at a Los Angeles hotel for fifteen years before she was laid off last March due to statewide closures spurred by the COVID-19 crisis. With extra time on her hands, Calderon decided it was time to learn English and signed up for the classes last summer.
“The classes help a lot,” the Salvadoran native said. “In this country, a lot of people don’t speak Spanish … If I don’t know English – what can I do? That’s why I need to learn.”
While still unemployed, Calderon said the English classes have helped her communicate with workers at the grocery store, the doctor’s office and the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Teaching job-focused English
The pandemic had another silver lining for Agras: It made her class more accessible to more students.
Typically, Agras and other teachers would have classes in hotels throughout Southern California. Workers would come at 6:30 a.m. to take the class before their shift started two hours later, Foreman said.
But with the pandemic, switching to Zoom classes meant students could attend remotely.
One of the students is Delmy Alas, who joined the class wearing a chef’s jacket and apron as she took a break from her shift at a Los Angeles hotel.
One student participated from her car en route to a dentist appointment. Another came to class while babysitting her grandson who’s learning to walk.
Agras had never taught a class over Zoom before the pandemic. But she keeps her students interested with occasional dance breaks and role-playing.
Those role plays often feature scenarios workers would face in their jobs, Agras said. She said on the first day of her class, she asks her students what their pre-pandemic jobs were and what their goals are, so she can better tailor her lessons to meet the workers’ needs.
For instance, for those who are thinking of going back to the workplace as a housekeeper, Agras pretends to be a complaining hotel guest.
Agras teaches students how to reply to the complaints so their responses don’t come off as rude.
Students have access to case managers who work with them on job placement, Foreman said. They may not get a job working as a cook at a unionized hotel, but they might leverage the academy’s partnership with companies such as Kaiser Permanente to work as a cook at a medical facility, she said.
Helen Iris Torres, CEO of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, said English classes can lead to additional work and training opportunities. The training could also instill confidence in workers to ask for salary raises.
“Being bilingual is incredibly important … especially here in California,” she said. “The English classes are a great step in the right direction. What we hope is it just doesn’t stop there.”
Torres said hospitality and domestic workers should have access to more job training resources so they can pursue jobs that aren’t as impacted by the pandemic-induced recession.
“We need to invest the money and the resources to build that infrastructure so that Latinas would be on better footing coming out of this economic downturn,” Torres said.
Barriers to training immigrant workers
Despite the programs like the academy’s, experts say, many immigrant workers in California struggle to get access to job training.
Many federally-funded programs exclude undocumented immigrants, said Sasha Feldstein, an economic justice policy manager at California Immigrant Policy Center. She also said those programs often pick those who are most likely to succeed, not most in need, because they have to meet performance metrics to get the federal grants.
Job training programs are good at placing workers in white-collar desk jobs. But English learners need more time to be proficient in the language and to be literate in using computers, said Kevin Lee, a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The number of apprenticeship programs geared toward English learners is also very low, even though hands-on work experience can be a valuable way for them to learn the language, said Jennie Mollica, a workforce development consultant.
Feldstein said even with the federal limitation, California has ways to help immigrant workers get better access to job training. The state, she said, has its own pool of money it can spend.
The state can do more to partner with community organizations or worker centers on the ground to create workforce development programs geared toward immigrant workers, Feldstein said. It can measure the programs’ success by looking not only at how many of them got jobs after a few months, but also at whether those who are most in need got help, she said.
“There’s nothing preventing California from creating a state workforce development system that’s open and accessible to everyone regardless of status,” she said. “Even with state funding, we tend to still comply with the federal way of doing things, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.”
As for the academy, Foreman said it will continue to host more English classes. One partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District teaches workplace culture, technical skills and conversational English to help workers get into entry-level positions at hotels and the Los Angeles International Airport.
As more businesses open up again with the vaccine rolling out, more of her students may be able to use the skills they learned to move into a better career, Foreman said.
“It’s a horrible time. It’s stressful. Everything’s horrible about the pandemic,” she said. “But on the flip side, there may be a sliver lining… to make lemonade out of lemons.”