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Former Hotel Executive Says his Chain Couldn’t Have Thrived without the Contributions of Refugee Workers

Tom Negri has worked in hotels his entire life. After graduating from high school, he moved to Colombia for school and work. At the Hotel Irotama in Colombia, he met his future wife. By age 21, while attending the New York Hotel School, Negri was married and working six days a week at the Loews Drake Hotel in New York City. In 1998, after stints in D.C. and Annapolis, Maryland, Loews Hotels offered him a promotion, but the job required that he move to Nashville.

Just “one half of one percent of the population of Nashville were foreign,” Negri says, “I was extremely nervous…. I nearly turned down the job.” With a Colombian wife, Tom “was worried how it would affect my family.” But Negri found Nashville warm and inviting, and Negri’s wife soon became a member of the International Club for the city’s foreign-born residents.

Around the same time, Negri quickly discovered that there was a labor shortage in Nashville, and finding workers interested in some of the hotel’s more labor-intensive jobs wasn’t always easy. So, Loews, under Negri’s lead, began employing refugees from all over—Bosnia, Somalia, Colombia, Mexico, to name a few. One man, who he hired as a housekeeping houseman, had been “an attorney and chess champion” in Bosnia. All told, 37 percent of Tom’s employees at the Loews Nashville were immigrants. The hotel’s growth “wouldn’t have happened without these foreign workers,” Negri says, “You couldn’t find help in Nashville in 2006. I wasn’t going to find any workers other than new arrivals.”

Negri began adding a 2 percent premium above the city average onto hourly wages in all areas of the hotel. He added a benefits package that included bus passes, language classes, dental and healthcare, free meals, and a 401(k). The turnover rate for hourly employees over 10 years fell from nearly 100 to 17 percent. His employees were hard workers, which allowed the hotel to keep growing through the recession. “The recession never hurt us as badly as it did other communities,” Negri says. Employees stayed loyal to the Loews chain, with many moving on to become managers themselves.

The city of Nashville is an immigrant success story. Through the recession, immigrants kept coming to build new lives and contribute to the community. Coptic Christians from Egypt and Kurds from Iraq were two groups that added to the city’s diversity. “The women in the Kurdish population took a real primary leadership role when they came to the United States,” he said. His hotel was a cultural hub of sorts. Each week Tom would rotate the cuisine in the employee cafeteria to reflect the staff’s diversity. One week they would serve South Asian food; the next week would be Mexican. “It was a family-like atmosphere,” he said.

Nashville is now a more tolerant and welcoming place. And that’s been great for our overall economy.

Nashville’s economic climate proved so good for Loews’ business that, in 2011, Loews relocated its national reservations and accounting offices to Nashville, adding 200 more jobs for local, American workers. Many of Negri’s team members at the hotel also moved to the new Loews offices.

Negri appreciated the value of immigrants so much that he got involved in immigration advocacy. In 2008 he started Nashville for All of Us, a group dedicated to defeating Nashville’s “English Only” ballot initiative. The group won in a landslide victory in early 2009 with two-thirds of the vote. Negri now sits on the board of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and Welcoming America, a national group that encourages communities to be more inclusive of immigrants. Locally, Negri also helps organize Celebrate Nashville, a “huge welcoming event that is all about new arrivals.” It attracts 130,000 people annually and features events like a naturalization ceremony for new citizens.

Negri says that he hopes immigration reform in the future celebrates the benefits that diversity brings to cities. He also wants policymakers to realize that refugees have a lot to contribute—both economically and socially—to the cities where they live. “Nashville,” Negri says, “is now a more tolerant and welcoming place. And that’s been great for our overall economy.”

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