Still fighting

Woodfin Suites workers wage a long, difficult battle to get what they are owed

The workers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville have had to fight hard for their rights against an intractable employer — one with a history of harassment and denying them proper pay — but the workers could be on the verge of yet another small victory.

The Emeryville City Council could decide Monday, Dec. 1 whether to award about $200,000 in back wages owed to the workers, thus potentially touching off yet another chapter in a long legal battle pitting local workers and voters against a conservative, out-of-town hotel owner.

This case stems from Measure C, a living wage ordinance passed by city voters in November 2005 that was aimed at hotel housecleaners. The measure requires that hotels pay all employees a minimum wage of $9 per hour and overtime pay for workers who clean more than 5,000 square feet of floor space.

Brooke Anderson, executive director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), said the measure came about after talking to housekeepers who complained about the long hours and stressful workloads. EBASE, an Oakland community-organizing nonprofit, ran the campaign to pass Measure C along with UNITE-HERE Local 2850 and the Alameda Central Labor Council.

Rosa, a Woodfin employee who asked not to be identified, has cleaned the hotel's luxurious suites for three years. She said that prior to Measure C's implementation, she struggled to complete her daily workload. "It was an excessive amount of work. If we didn't finish, we had to clock out and work without pay."

Through communication with the workers after the measure went into effect Dec. 5, 2005, EBASE found that Woodfin and the Marriott Courtyard Hotel were not in compliance. "We had workers start taking journals down saying, 'I cleaned this many rooms today, what I should have been paid was X, what I did get paid was Y'," Anderson said.

By fall 2006, Woodfin and Marriott workers went public with their complaints, "essentially blowing the whistle on their hotels' not complying with the law," Anderson said.

Both groups of workers testified before the City Council. Marriot quickly came into compliance, raising wages across the board and paying back wages for the year spent out of compliance. Woodfin slowly came into compliance, dropping the room load from about 17 to around 9 over the next three months.

Yet in June 2007, city officials found that Woodfin owed about $250,000 in back wages. The hotel appealed the ruling, arguing that Measure C was unconstitutional. In April, the Alameda Superior Court ruled that the law is constitutional and that the city of Emeryville has the right to demand back wages, but it took issue with the methodology used to calculate the owed amount. The judge ordered the city to revise its back wage order and hold another hearing.

The city reissued its order in August, calling for around $200,000 in back wages. Woodfin appealed the ruling; a first hearing was held Nov. 17, and a final decision is expected Dec. 1.

Woodfin's argument this round, according to spokesperson Tim Rosales, is that Emeryville did not clarify its requirements until 2007 so the company cannot be held accountable for regulations it believed it was complying with. Rosales said the city passed "implementing regulations" in 2007 and "tried to retroactively apply those 2007 rules to 2006."

"It would be as if the IRS applied this year's tax increases to last year's taxes and asked you to pay the difference," he said. Additionally, Woodfin cleans each large suite with a team of housekeepers, making it difficult to calculate individual square footage.

EBASE counters that Woodfin purposely ignored Measure C's regulations, which it vehemently opposed during the election.

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