An Embassy Suites hotel in Irvine, Calif. has been found guilty this week of denying required paid rest breaks to seven of its workers, and has been ordered by the state to pay each of them about $5,000.
Leigh Shelton, Communications Director for Unite Here, told the People's World that many of the workers at the hotel had filed complaints with the state of California in August of 2010. The full time workers were not getting all the paid breaks they were entitled to under California law; a thirty minute lunch break and two additional ten minute breaks per day. The law says that when an employer denies a worker a ten-minute paid rest break, the employer must pay the worker an hour in wages.
To dramatize their complaints, the workers walked off the job for 24 hours last August. The job action was particularly significant, Shelton said, because it was carried out by workers who did not have the protection of union membership. They had, however, reached out to Unite Here for its advice and assistance, she said.
One of the initial problems, Shelton elaborated, was that "the company piles on work, and workers don't have time to take breaks.
"All of the workers filed complaints," she continued. "Forty three workers in total." In a formal hearing, of those 43 people, she remarked, "Only seven workers' cases were heard so far for owed back pay. The rest of them still have to fight for it."
Each of the seven workers received around $5,000 in back pay. As for the remainder of workers who filed complaints, they will testify before a California Labor Department hearing officer in the months to come.
Shelton noted, "This was very promising - a huge victory."
Maribel Duarte, a housekeeper who has worked at Embassy Suites for 16 years, commented, "I only earn $10.02 per hour, so this extra money will help me make ends meet. But more importantly, we showed Embassy Suites that it is not above the law. We have rights, and the managers must respect them."
Shelton said that the next priority for workers at the hotel is to win representation for Unite Here as their union. "The fight for this started about a year ago," she said.
Rachele Smith, who has worked the front desk at the hotel for three years, supports the union organizing drive. She worries, however, that the company won't remain neutral during the drive.
"All we are asking for is a fair process," said Smith. Hotels have a history of harassing employees who try to form unions, with some going as far as firing union organizers. Others hire consultants to devise anti-union campaigns and force workers to attend anti-union meetings, under pain of job loss.
Only a few weeks ago, Smith said, the old problem of being denied break time cropped up again. "Our front office manager is currently on vacation. Yesterday morning, the general manager was inaccessible to us." Basically, "there was no accessible manager, and it makes it extremely difficult; my coworker and I, we didn't even know if we'd be able to take a lunch break."
Breaks and required pay for those breaks are not the only issues that workers are talking about. They say that one of the major reasons they need a union is that they are being grossly underpaid.
"This is an extremely successful hotel," said Smith, with "a convenient location and all. And yet, we're still below any sort of living wage."
Shelton says that, after winning the back pay, and in addition to the issue of wages, employees are anxious to address overall working conditions, including the company's failure to hire enough people to do the required jobs and increasingly heavy work loads.
Workers are pleased about the back pay, said Shelton but want also to send a message to the company that says, "You can't walk all over us."
Ana Maria Trevino, a housekeeper commented, "I feel vindicated. Because of so much work, we rarely got to take breaks. It was just another way for the hotel managers to take advantage of us and maximize profits at our expense. I'm proud that we stood up, fought back, and won."
As for Shelton and Unite Here, the fight continues: She said that at the Disneyland Resort hotel, for example, workers have, for years, dealt with low wages as a tradeoff for health insurance coverage for their children.
Now, Disney is demanding that its workers handle the health care costs - which total $500 a month - themselves. For those who make little more than $8 per hour, this will surely break workers trying to support their families.
"It's been a really long, difficult fight with Disney and we're still fighting it very fiercely," she said.
Photo: Hotel Workers Rising