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On the Job: The lonely mornings of a hotel barista in the age of coronavirus

Jose Soto pours a cup of hot coffee for a guest at the Hyatt Centric in Long Beach Monday, October 5, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

On the Job is a standing feature in the Long Beach Business Journal, where we spend a day with workers in different professions throughout the city. If you have a suggestion, please email alena@lbbj.com.

It’s a chilly Monday morning by Southern California standards, and José Soto, 32, waits behind the Hyatt Centric at the Pike in Downtown Long Beach in the pre-dawn mist.

On a normal day, the hotel barista would simply swipe his card at the employee entrance and start preparing the dining area for the morning rush of guests demanding coffee, above all, along with bagels, croissants and the occasional orange juice.

But working anywhere during a global pandemic feels far from normal, no less at a hotel that’s lacking the one thing hotels are all about: guests.

So instead, Soto shuffles back and forth until finally the security guard on duty unlocks the gate, takes his temperature and allows him inside. On his way to his work station, a newly installed coffee bar adjacent to the hotel lobby, he passes through an empty kitchen, where refillable containers of cereal and miniature jars of jam wait for their time to shine once again.

For now, traditional breakfast service has been suspended. His coworkers—three other servers, a dishwasher and a chef—have been sent home, Soto said. The elegant, nautical-themed dining area is empty: no sit down service, no cereal dispensers, no salt and pepper shakers.

To kick off his shift, Soto wipes down every inch of counter space with disinfectant and dons a surgical mask provided by the hotel over his personal, cloth mask. “At least I know the one I have is clean. It’s self-care—or something like that,” he said.

Cleaning has become a bit of an obsession for him, Soto admits. At first, he would get frustrated with coworkers leaning on the counter. “How do I keep things clean when everyone’s always touching everything?” he asked. Now, he’s firm about asking his colleagues to keep a safe distance.

But being without his team has been difficult for Soto. “The hardest part is being here by myself every morning, not having anyone to talk to,” he said. “There’s days when I just stand here and no one passes me by.”

On this early Monday morning, a few guests stop by to grab coffee. Soto greets them enthusiastically. “What can I get for you, brother?” he asks. “Do you like the hotel?”

Jose Soto serves a hotel gust with a morning cup of hot coffee at the Hyatt Centric in Long Beach Monday, October 5, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Soto grew up in Compton and South Gate, later moving to Long Beach where he now owns a home. One day, he hopes to open his own coffee shop or a little cart, from which to sell healthy meals to low-income families. Maybe both, he said.

For now, he’s using his entrepreneurial spirit to breathe life into the somewhat ghostly atmosphere of the nearly empty hotel. “You have to create sales, you have to create that energy that’s not there,” Soto explained.

Having worked at the hotel for 11 years, before it was bought by the Hyatt chain, Soto has held every position imaginable. He went from dishwasher to room service, refilling now-abolished minibars, before finally settling into his position as a server. Over that decade-long career, change has been ever-present and he is confident that the company will make it through the pandemic as well.

But a die-hard union member, Soto has also felt disillusioned with his employer’s response to the public health crisis, citing issues obtaining PPE at the beginning of the pandemic and the troubles faced by his colleagues who are currently out of work. To help them out, he has participated in several food drives organized by his union, Unite Here Local 11.

“We’re just trying to be there for each other,” he said. As one of the few hotel workers who still has a job to report to every day, Soto also expressed a sense of responsibility for keeping the business alive. “We have to keep this going so there’s something for people to do when they come back.”

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