New York Times Neediest Cases

From Serving the Famous at the Waldorf to Starting Over - New York Times Neediest Cases

At the Waldorf Astoria, she caught glimpses of Donald J. Trump, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

That’s to name just a few of the politicians Regina Gatewood spotted in her 16 years as a banquet waitress at the Waldorf, on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

One time, Phillip C. McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, asked her for directions to the restroom. “I feel like I know you,” she recalled telling him. “And he said, ‘You do know me.’”

Ms. Gatewood has come far since her mid-30s, when she entered New York City’s shelter system with her two sons after their father left. She worked long hours as a waitress and in temporary jobs until she could afford public housing, and eventually her own home on Staten Island. She started at the Waldorf in 2000 and worked her way up, becoming a full-time employee in 2010.

“I never thought about retiring,” Ms. Gatewood, 62, said. “I thought I would die in the Jade Room.”

But when the luxury hotel closed its doors on March 1 for years of renovations, Ms. Gatewood found herself without a job, along with more than 1,200 unionized hotel employees. Although they had known the closing was coming, Ms. Gatewood said, there was still an atmosphere of disbelief. Her work at the Waldorf was highly specialized — waiters served in pairs and did not use a computer-ordering system — and Ms. Gatewood worried such specialization would make it difficult for her to find employment elsewhere.

On the afternoon that the Waldorf closed, Hilton Worldwide, which manages the hotel, treated employees to a party in the Grand Ballroom, complete with champagne.

“But champagne is for celebrations,” Ms. Gatewood said. “And what were we celebrating? We were losing our jobs. We needed a good strong vodka, or maybe a Scotch.”

At the end of the party, the employees turned toward the stage, where a large mock light switch was flipped and the lights went out.

Seeking a fit for her specialized skills was not Ms. Gatewood’s only concern: She feared the challenge of finding work in her 60s. She joined the 91,000 New York State residents who are 55 or older and looking for work. About a third of people in that demographic face long-term unemployment, or at least 27 weeks without work, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics.

At the party, Ms. Gatewood said, many colleagues whispered hopes of returning when the hotel reopens. She hoped her $10,000 post-tax severance package would help carry her through, along with her savings of $50,000, roughly her annual salary. Ms. Gatewood provides for her two adult sons and her mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. They live together in a home she rents for $1,000 a month.

Her younger son, Isaiah Page, 27, got a minimum-wage job about a year ago stocking shelves at a supermarket, but he is not yet able to contribute to the family’s expenses. His brother, William Page, 33, has been out of work for many years.

With her savings in jeopardy, Ms. Gatewood decided she needed to develop skills for a different career. In March, she enrolled at Grace Institute, a job-training program serving low-income women in New York City. During a recent interview, Ms. Gatewood walked the green-and-white halls of the building in the financial district, her head held high, her pace brisk.

“This is my home away from home,” she said with a smile.

She commuted an hour and a half from Staten Island to Lower Manhattan by train, ferry and CitiBike to attend classes five days a week in professional development and typing. In August, she graduated from the institute, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. That month, Catholic Charities provided her with $279 from the fund for a suit, shirt, shoes and coat for job interviews.

Last week, Ms. Gatewood started a temporary full-time job at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where she works as a room service attendant, filling in for a staff member on leave.

Hilton, when contacted this week for this article, offered to help Ms. Gatewood find a permanent job at one of its other locations in New York City.

Before securing temporary employment, Ms. Gatewood received $425 a week in unemployment benefits. She has many years of hospitality experience, but said she would like to one day work in real estate.

Ms. Gatewood said she wished that she could have spent more time with her sons when they were younger. After her partner left she began waitressing, and the flexible hours allowed her to see her sons off to school and day care. But long shifts kept her out sometimes until 5 a.m., leaving her older son to look after his brother. In 1998, they settled in the Staten Island neighborhood of Park Hill, where they still live today. Ms. Gatewood would occasionally work seven days a week and was not home enough, she said.

She wants her sons to find jobs they are passionate about and make lives for themselves.

“My job as a mother isn’t done,” she said. “I still have to continue to keep them, to assist them, to guide them. I have to fulfill my responsibility to them. If there’s parenting left to be done, you keep doing it. And I’m still going.”

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