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Hotel Bel-Air closes for renovations, laying off 250 union workers

The hotel has refused to commit to rehiring the employees, many of whom are immigrants, when work is done in 2011. Many are worried about losing affordable health coverage.

October 01, 2009|Hugo Martin and Patrick J. McDonnell

The Hotel Bel-Air closed quietly Wednesday, shutting for two years of renovations without agreeing to a severance package with its unionized employees.

The resort -- for more than 60 years a retreat for presidents, movie stars and others -- has refused to commit to rehire 250 union employees after its multimillion-dollar face-lift is complete in 2011. Leaders of Unite Here Local 11 have accused the hotel's managers of using the renovation project to rid itself of the union.

Management has offered workers a severance package but union leaders have rejected the deal, saying it provides inadequate health insurance coverage and no guarantees that the employees will have jobs when the hotel reopens. A federal mediator is expected to oversee further meetings, starting today.

"We think it's a tactic to close the union and clear out the workers," said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman for Unite Here Local 11.

Shelton said the severance package offered to give workers two weeks' worth of salary for every year on the job plus a contribution to a health plan that could last about six months. But she said that the deductibles on the plan were so high that workers could not afford them. And she said the severance package did not include the most important benefit to workers: a guarantee that the hotel employees would have jobs when the face-lift was completed.

Hotel officials would not comment on the details of the offer except to issue a statement: "Hotel Bel-Air has offered what the hotel believes to be a substantial and extremely fair severance package and has made a final offer for consideration."

The renovation will include an upgrade of all 91 rooms and suites, the hotel's Champagne Bar, its restaurant and private dining rooms. Some suites go for as much as $4,000 a night. But on Wednesday -- the last day before construction was scheduled to begin -- all was quiet at the Mission-style hotel. No construction equipment or building material was visible on the hotel's shady, well-manicured grounds. Employees hugged and were overheard promising to keep in touch.

Many of the workers being laid off are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who typically earn $13 to $14 an hour, union officials said, considerably more than at nonunion hotels. Plus, all have virtually free health insurance under the union contract, which expired Wednesday.

A half-dozen workers interviewed by The Times said their jobs had allowed them to buy homes and cars, send children to college and savor a sense of security -- one that is now being shattered in a slumping economy.

"We gave our lives to the hotel, the best years of our lives. Now we are being tossed out like old furniture," said Irma Zavala, a 20-year veteran of the hotel and native of El Salvador who began as a maid and most recently helped oversee the staff's uniforms.

Many of the workers said they worried about losing affordable health coverage, a major problem facing the unemployed nationwide. Several said they or loved ones had serious medical conditions that required constant attention.

Antonio Escobedo, 57, a father of seven who helped tend the hotel's extensive gardens, said he takes four medications for ulcers and other ailments and doesn't have the financial resources to pay for them without insurance.

"Losing my job is a terrible blow for me," said Escobar, a native of Mexico. "At my age, I'm not sure what I can find, but I know it won't be as good a job as I've had here."

Union officials said the move to fire all union workers at the Hotel Bel-Air was reminiscent of similar tactics used in 1992 when the Beverly Hills Hotel fired more than 300 union workers during a two-year renovation project. When the hotel reopened, it hired nonunion workers.

The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air are operated by Dorchester Collection, a luxury hotel operator owned by the government-controlled Brunei Investment Agency that manages the oil-rich country's hotels in Europe and the U.S.


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