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Staffers sue Ritz hotel in Pasadena

Workers say they aren't paid for overtime and are denied breaks.

August 31, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Two employees at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena filed a lawsuit Thursday against the luxury resort, alleging that they are not paid overtime and are forced to work through their breaks.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, is the latest salvo in a dispute between workers and management at the hotel, which is the focus of a union organizing campaign. The hotel is owned by the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., which manages the $38-billion pension fund of retired police officers, firefighters and other county workers -- many of them union members.

In addition to the lawsuit, workers have recently filed complaints with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the National Labor Relations Board.

"They treat us like slaves," said housekeeper Elvia Alonso, 44, who has worked at the hotel for six years and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "They say, 'If you don't like it, you go home.' "

Allison Sitch, a spokeswoman for Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., declined to comment on the litigation and the specific complaints but said, "Genuinely, we take all of these things seriously." Hotel operator Ritz-Carlton is a unit of Marriott International of Bethesda, Md.

In interviews, eight current and former employees of the hotel representing different departments complained about racial discrimination, hour and wage violations, staffing problems, unsafe work conditions and retaliation for engaging in union activities.

Hotel employees -- and representatives from the Unite Here hotel workers' union -- have asked the county employees' retirement association to take a more active role in addressing the workers' complaints. The employees fear that the group will move forward with plans to sell the hotel without ensuring "labor peace" -- an agreement by management to allow workers to choose whether to unionize without intimidation or harassment -- and without resolving what they contend are longtime problems. The hotel employs about 600 workers, 350 of whom would be eligible for the union.

"LACERA owns and has a role in the operation of the hotel, and they can't turn a blind eye to the labor law violations that are going on there," said attorney Randy Renick, who filed the suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of the workers.

The pension fund is seeking to sell the 394-room, 23-acre property that it bought in 1994 for $42.5 million, said Alan Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group. Reay, an analyst who monitors the lodging industry, said the fund could sell the property for as much as $180 million.

"Three to six months ago, the hotel market was much, much hotter, but there are still plenty of buyers for trophy assets such as this," Reay said.

The prospect of LACERA reaping a gain of more than $100 million on a sale isn't sitting well with some hotel workers.

"They've made money off our blood," said bellman Steve Strong, 25. "We're chronically understaffed and injured to make them money."

Gregg Rademacher, the retirement association's chief executive, said professional investment advisors selected and managed its real estate portfolio.

"We expect the Ritz-Carlton to conduct operations in compliance with all federal and state laws," he said. "We let it be known that discriminatory practices are not to be tolerated and that LACERA would not tolerate any retaliatory practices against any employees who attended any board meetings or engaged in any unionization efforts."

At a recent LACERA board meeting, Mark Klein of the Service Employees International Union, which represents many public-sector employees, said he asked the board to intervene by "urging them in the strongest way possible to sign a labor peace agreement."

"If that happens, a lot of this goes away," he said.

The workers said they had not seen any changes.

Angelina Aranibar, who makes $11.45 an hour, said she complained for more than a month about broken wheels on her housekeeping cart. Management refused to fix it, claiming it didn't have the parts, she said. One day, the cart toppled over on her, injuring tendons in her shoulder, she said. She required surgery, has been forced to go on disability at reduced pay and doesn't have enough money to cover rent, she said.

The day of the accident, Aranibar said, management called the engineering department to fix the cart and asked her to finish cleaning her rooms before it sent her to a doctor.

Alonso contends she was denied a job transfer to the call center from housekeeping because of her ethnicity. "They told me I don't speak good English and that I had to go back to school," said Alonso, who speaks English fluently but with a Spanish accent.

Cooks, including Raymund Astrero and Paul Miranda, said managers made derogatory comments on their ethnic background and said they overheard one supervisor refer to a new chef, who is black, with a racial epithet.

Workers in several departments reported being unable to take breaks because of a rising workload. They said supervisors forced workers to punch out for breaks even if they were working through them.

Cook John Amaro, 26, said it was routine for one worker to collect timecards and punch everyone out for a break at the same time, set a timer for 30 minutes, then punch everyone back in.

"They would tell us, 'You need to take breaks,' " said Amaro, the other plaintiff in the suit filed Thursday. "But if we don't finish, we're going to get in trouble. . . . They either disregard our complaints or threaten us to be quiet or lose our jobs. We've all experienced the same intimidation, the same disregard for our concerns."

Times staff writers Roger Vincent and Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.

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