By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On April 19, Long Beach Renaissance Hotel workers filed a class action lawsuit for multiple forms of what amounts to wage theft. This included denial of rest breaks and overtime pay, being forced to do unpaid prep work and not being reimbursed for expenses.
“It’s very common in the hotel industry what’s happening at the Renaissance Hotel,” said Michael Morrison, the lead attorney who filed the suit.
“You’ve got mostly immigrant and low-wage earners, who [are] basically being subjected to what’s called ‘off the clock work.’ That means that they’re working and not being paid for that time that doesn’t appear in their time records, even though the company knows that they’re performing this work.”
But there are more issues involved than state law violations regarding rest periods and meal breaks.
“There’s problems with them complying with the Long Beach municipal code,” which provides for five sick days a year, Morrison explained. “The company is taking the position that they’re only entitled to three sick days, because that’s what California provides.”
The suit also includes an unfair business practice charge. When a company breaks the law by underpaying workers, it gets an unfair edge against its competition, too, which California forbids. But if no one is punished, the practices tend to spread.
“So this, in the broader sense, is a good idea to sue these hotels about these violations, because it may make other hotels think twice about doing the same thing.” Morrison explained.
There are three named plaintiffs, each representing a sub-class of workers with specific kinds of complaints in common: banquet subclass, housekeeping subclass and food service subclass.
For example, the complaint alleges, “housekeepers are required to work off-the-clock daily. Specifically, housekeepers are required to come in to work anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour before the start of their scheduled shifts to prepare the materials they will use to clean service rooms. However, housekeepers are not compensated for their work.”
Nor are they reimbursed for cleaning supplies and protective gloves purchased because management fails to provide them. They are also expected to clean a set number of rooms daily, often working unpaid overtime in order to meet their quotas.
“Members of the banquet subclass are routinely not provided with rest periods or compensation in lieu thereof as required by California law,” another sub-class example in the complaint noted. “Banquet workers cannot take rest breaks, in part, because there is no one available to relieve them of their duties.”
This means that their work is intentionally structured to deprive them of their breaks. Nor are they compensated for these stolen break periods. Similar intentional understaffing is involved in depriving the food service sub-class of rest and meal breaks as well.
“We have another lawsuit—that just like this [one] against the Westin Hotel—the violations are shockingly similar between the two,” said Morrison, when asked about the broader situation in Long Beach as a whole. That suit was filed this past August.
“The only thing we can guess is it’s not just hotels, there is incentive for employers to cheat employees out of money, because it saves them money,” he said. “But the hotel community, I think, is particularly vulnerable, because most of the people are immigrants.”
There’s independent confirmation of this. A 2014 Department of Labor report on minimum wage violations in California and New York found an estimated 334,000 monthly violations from one data source and 372,000 weekly minimum wage violations from another, both representing more than 3 percent of covered workers, with lost income running from $22.5 million to almost $28.7 million per week.
The report found that, “In California, non-citizens are…approximately 1.6 times more likely to suffer from a minimum wage violation.”
While other forms of wage theft are more difficult to track, there’s every reason to believe immigrant workers suffer from them as well.
“So there’s a language barrier, there’s also a fear of essentially going up against the powerful corporate entities,” Morrison said. “We think it’s the type of workers, the low-wage earners, they’re being victimized because they can be victimized, and so this is in part a class and race issue in addition to just the balance of power between employees and employers.”
Workers at both Renaissance and Westin are involved in a unionization struggle with UNITE HERE! as well.
“We’re not involved in the union effort, but we do want to see changes in the hotel … more importantly, and something that the union can’t do, we’re suing for back wages, money that they’ve already earned and not been paid,” Morrison said. “So, it’s about improving future conditions; it’s about fairly compensating people for the work they’ve done, and the money they’re entitled to.”
There’s clearly more involved than just this one hotel.
“We see this link to the broader struggle,” Morrison said. “We have essentially a working poor here in America. People are actually working full time, doing the responsible thing, and yet they barely or cannot make a living.”
Low wages are one part of the problem, wage theft is another.
“Legal solutions are imperfect, you also need political solutions. You need economic solutions,” Morrison continued. “You need pressure from other parts of society on these hotels to make sure that they’re paying their workers correctly.”
It’s a huge struggle, but it’s moving in a promising direction.
“Long Beach in the last few years has become a very progressive city in terms of advancing workers’ rights…you have seen municipal ordinances, you have seen the increase in minimum wage; and they want to increase the minimum wage even further,” he said. “They want to have protections for women as well…So, I think Long Beach could be a model in the future.”
At least it’s a future that’s starting to become imaginable, one battle at a time.