Woodfin Suites workers wage a long, difficult battle to get what they are owed
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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. Anderson also said the hotel has a long history of using intimidation tactics throughout the two-year struggle.
The Guardian broke the story last year ("Calling in the feds," 6/13/07) that the owner of Woodfin Suites, Sam Hardage, used connections with US Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego) to have the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials audit his own hotel, which he then used as a pretext for trying to fire some of his workers.
"The real question," Emeryville City Council Member John Fricke told the Guardian, "is why has the Woodfin hotel chosen to invest so much money fighting Measure C.
"It's pretty clear that the Woodfin has spent many times the back wage it owes and paid that to lawyers," he said.
Rosales said that the hotel was battling on a matter of principle. "One could argue that were going to be doing business in Emeryville for a very long time," he said. "We want to find some clarity on the issue so the city can't adopt measures and apply them retroactively."
Both sides hope for a favorable outcome Dec. 1, but remain entrenched and ready to defend their positions.
"We are confident that a favorable decision will be made and we hope that the hotel will pay," Rosa said. "[The dispute] has made me stronger both as a person, and as a member of the working class."
Woodfin is confident but prepared to continue fighting.
"Really what we want to do is find some good resolution between ourselves and the city," Rosales said. If they don't, he said, "I think we could find ourselves back in court." *