A former housekeeper at Embassy Suites Irvine has been awarded a $70,000 settlement in a workers compensation case against the hotel.
Maribel Duarte, a Tustin resident and housekeeper for 16 years at Embassy Suites, won the settlement earlier this year for injuries sustained in 2009 and 2010 at the hotel. The company also reimbursed the state Employment Development Department for $6,100 and paid Duarte's medical bills, which were more than $25,000, said David Goldstein, Duarte's attorney. Duarte injured her neck, arms and legs from repetitive motion from cleaning hotel rooms, injuries which a doctor found to be completely work related, Goldstein said.
In another dispute, late last year the hotel agreed to pay $99,999 in back pay after workers claimed the company denied them state mandated 10-minute breaks on the job. The ruling came one month after a state officer ordered the hotel to pay $36,000 to seven workers who had been denied rest breaks. Workers are permitted two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute break per eight-hour shift, according to state law. For each hour a break is missed, the worker is entitled to an hour of back pay. The hotel has settled or been found liable on 32 wage and hour violation complaints. Payments to individual workers ranged from $1,000 to $5,700. Rachele Smith, who has worked at the hotel front desk for four years, received money from the settlement.
Smith said she was often given so much work that she did not have time to take a break because the hotel did not adequately staff its desk, and there was pressure from management to work harder and faster. During a routine picket line last month, more than a dozen hotel workers, union organizers and supporters marched outside the Embassy Suites. Workers have been trying to unionize for several years, but say the hotel has taken actions to prevent them from doing so.
According to charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board in August and December of last year, several workers were fired, suspended or retaliated against for engaging in efforts to unionize. NRLB officials could not comment because investigations into the charges are ongoing.
Mario Donis de Leon of Santa Ana, who worked as a house keeper for three years, said he was fired for stealing after he forgot to return his cleaning supplies when he clocked out. He had taken an apple discarded in the trash, which he said was common practice among workers. Donis said he believes his termination was retaliation for his involvement in efforts to organize.
Since, he's been hired at the Anaheim Hilton, which is unionized with UNITE HERE, Local 11, the same union Embassy Suites workers want to represent them, he said. At his new job, he makes higher wages and is treated with respect, he said. "I can't believe the change, it's so much better," he said. "There, I was treated like an animal." Even though he has no plan to return to his former employer, he said he will continue picketing with his former colleagues.
HEI Hospitality LLC, which manages the Embassy Suites, said employee terminations are fair, and have included discussions with the affected workers. "We have not, and would not, discipline any employee for seeking to unionize. We respect our employees' freedom of choice with regard to union representation, and we support the democratic process of secret ballot elections with regard to those decisions," according to an emailed statement from the company. "Unfortunately, the union, UNITE HERE Local 11, prefers to foment disruption, rather than contribute in a positive way to the success of our employees and the hotel."
But workers and union officials don't see eye-to-eye with the hotel. Rather than a secret ballot, which they consider unfair, they would like the hotel to recognize the card-check petitions the majority of workers have signed, said union spokeswoman Leigh Shelton.
"We're asking the company for a fair and neutral process instead of threats of firing or warnings," said Joseph Murphy, who was a house attendant at the hotel for two and a half years and now works as an organizer with the union.
Smith, who recently graduated from UC Irvine, said her mother was a housekeeper for 20 years, and she sees what the job has done to her body. She feels like she can't walk away from her job at the front desk until she and her co-workers have gained their rights.
"I see her behind the other workers faces. They work until there's nothing left to be squeezed out of them," she said. "It means a lot to stand up with people who feel the same way. We feel we do have power to be treated correctly."
HEI has a high associate satisfaction rating above the industry average, according to surveys conducted by an independent research firm.
"Nearly 90 percent of HEI employees agree that they are satisfied in their relationship with the company," the HEI statement read.