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Woodfin Continues to Hold Out on Back Wages

28 April 2009 No Comment

Diana Montaño

In what has become a years-long saga pitting the Woodfin Hotel in Emeryville against its workers, the hotel has again defied an Emeryville City Council order to pay back wages, workers’ advocates say.

In 2006, hotel employees first charged the Woodfin with defying a city-wide living wage ordinance. Measure C, approved by Emeryville voters in November 2005 and put into effect that December, set guidelines for low wage work in the city. Among these guidelines was a limit to the workloads assigned to hotel attendants, or housekeepers. According to the ordinance, these workers were to be paid time-and-a-half were they to clean more than 5,000 square feet of room space in an 8-hour work day. At the Woodfin, this square footage would have been equal to nine or ten hotel suites.

But workers have charged that for nearly a year, the hotel did not comply, and they continued to clean around 17 suites per day. They are now demanding back wages for the work they say exceeded the ordinance’s limits.

“We didn’t know about the law,” says Maria Martinez, who has worked at the Woodfin for eight years. All the workers involved, she says, are immigrant women. “Nobody told us. Only when people from EBASE came to tell us, that’s when we found out.”

The East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, an Oakland-based community organization advocating for low-wage workers in the area, has taken on the case.

“This isn’t charity; it’s not a gift,” says Brooke Anderson, the deputy director of EBASE, “It’s money earned by their own sweat and their own backache.”

With the support of EBASE and other community and legal aid groups, the workers approached the City Council and simultaneously filed a lawsuit for back wages against the hotel chain in September of 2006.

After investigating, the City Council ordered the hotel to pay $200,000 in back wages in 2007. The hotel  challenged the Council’s order in Alameda County Superior Court. In 2008, the court upheld the validity of Measure C, while ordering the City Council to redo the hearing process in order to guarantee the hotel its right to due process.

In the latest turn of events following the court decision, the City Council revisited the case, holding a series of hearings between November and January. At these hearings, the hotel challenged the order on several grounds, including the argument that room inspectors, or supervisors, conducted room cleaning as part of their jobs, and that therefore the hotel’s “team approach” rendered the Councils’ calculations of housekeepers’ workload, and corresponding back wages, inaccurate.

After an in-depth audit of the hotel’s records and workers’ time sheets, the Council rejected the hotel’s argument. At the last hearing on January 15, the Council issued its second order to the hotel to pay up.  Hotel officials were told to pay workers by March 31, and to provide the city with proof that the back wages had been paid by April 15.

April 15 came and went, and the hotel did neither.

Tim Rosales, spokesperson for Woodfin, says that the hotel has not complied because it continues to disagree with the Council’s decision and will be appealing the order again through the courts. The City Council, says Rosales, is in no place to judge the hotel’s cleaning practices, nor the measurement of square footage, since they are not specialists in the industry.

The hotel was also not satisfied with the fairness of the second round of hearings. “It was a huge waste of taxpayer money,” says Rosales, explaining that the hotel saw no difference between these hearings and the previous ones that the court had ruled inadequate.

But workers and their advocates are getting increasingly frustrated with the hotel’s defiance. “This is the second time the City Council has ordered Woodfin to pay,” Anderson says. “We know for a fact that they’ve thrown twice as much money into lawsuits than they would have had to pay workers.”

While the hotel is currently in compliance with Measure C, Rosales says that there is cause for broader concern arising from the living wage ordinance, saying that with increased operating costs such as bookkeeping called for by the law’s regulations, the measure is seen by many in the local hotel industry as a “hinderance to development.”

“With the economy now,” says Rosales, “Businesses are leaving the city. As long as the measure is on the books, hotels will be very reluctant to do business in Emeryville.” And when they see another business such as the Woodfin “dragged through the mud,” he says, hotels will think twice about doing business in the city.

But for Martinez, a mother of four who lives in Richmond, the $12,000 she says Woodfin owes her trumps considerations of a city’s economic development. At times, she says, the fight for back wages has turned ugly for these immigrant workers.

“They said that because there was a lot of people working illegally, that they didn’t have any rights,” says Martinez, speaking of some of the hotel managers’ references to the workers’ immigration status. According to Martinez, many workers have been fired since the conflict erupted, and their immigration status has been the primary excuse. “If someone defended themselves, or stood up for their rights,” she says, “they looked for an excuse to get rid of them. A lot of people have been fired for defending themselves.”

A month after the initial lawsuit was filed in 2006, workers received “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration informing them that the social security number and name they had provided did not match. Ordinarily sent out as courtesy to workers in the case of an administrative error or typo, the letter states that receiving the notice is not an indication of immigration status and that taking action against a worker would put the company in legal liability. Regardless, Anderson, of EBASE, says that 10 days before Christmas, 12 workers were fired and were only rehired after an injunction was put into place by a judge.

In spite of these challenges, Martinez is hopeful.

“We will win,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the community support the workers have received.

“We have to know how to defend ourselves. And they have to know that just because someone’s an immigrant, they can’t do with them what they want.”

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