Two housekeepers at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Nov. 18, alleging they were fired in retaliation after removing “sexually suggestive images” of themselves posted in a hotel work area.
The charges come just weeks after the San Francisco Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf was issued serious citations by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA), coupled with proposed fines totaling more than $20,000, for health and safety violations.
Martha and Lorena Reyes, who are sisters, were fired from the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara on Oct. 14, two weeks after Martha removed the images from a display board that had similar images of all the housekeeping staff members. “When I saw the images, I was embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated,” Lorena Reyes' EEOC complaint states. “My sister tore down the photo of me. When an employee told my sister to return the photos to the bulletin board, she refused.”
The images showed photographs of the Latina sisters' faces tacked onto cartoon-like drawings of white women wearing bikinis. Hyatt Regency Santa Clara spokesperson Peter Hillan told us they were put up as part of an industrywide annual event, National Housekeeping Week, to celebrate housekeepers. The hotel selected a beach scene, he said, because “The theme was 'riding the waves to success.'”
“We take it seriously any time that our associates indicate that they've been offended,” Hillan said, but stressed that “this morning was the first time we were made aware that there was offense taken.” Hillan could not say when management first became aware that Martha Reyes had removed the images, nor was he able to identify who was responsible for displaying them.
When the Reyes sisters were fired, they were told it was because they took lunch breaks that were longer than the allotted 30 minutes, Lorena Reyes explained. Yet she countered this by saying it's common practice for housekeepers to rest for an additional 10 minutes during lunch breaks on days when heavy workloads make it infeasible to take one of the two 10-minute breaks they're entitled to under state law.
“We haven't come across anyone else who's been fired for it,” said Adam Zapala, an attorney with the firm Davis, Cowell, and Bowe, who is representing the sisters. “So it raises the suspicion in our mind.”
Hillan, the Hyatt spokesperson, described the sisters' assertions that they had been fired in retaliation as false. “To us, this is part of a larger issue with UNITE HERE,” the hotel workers' union, “that we've seen a fairly consistent approach by UNITE HERE leadership to take out of context and make disingenuous claims on behalf of associates,” he said.
On Nov. 18, UNITE HERE Local 2 helped organize a picket against Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. The union has sought to unionize workers at that location.
Zapala noted that the pair of EEOC complaints were filed Nov. 18 to compel Hyatt to re-hire the sisters. However, the official complaints are also a first step toward a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, CalOSHA issued two serious citations against the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf along with proposed fines of more than $20,000, alleging violations against health and safety codes protecting workers against repetitive motion injuries.
Pamela Vossenas, health and safety director for UNITE HERE, described housekeepers' work as “a nonstop assembly line of repetitive motion. These citations allege that Hyatt failed to follow certain parts of that standard.”
Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf hotel workers formally complained about repetitive motion injuries in Nov. 2010, and the citations are a result of a long-term investigation.
Workplace injuries resulting from repetitive motion can include back strain, shoulder strain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. “There are many ways the tasks could be done safer, but they're not given the time, and they're not given the tools,” Vossenas said.
Dania Duke, general manager at Hyatt Fisherman’s Whart, dismissed those concerns. "We strongly disagree with CalOSHA's investigative process, and the end result which was handed down to us before their ergonomic study was completed," she said. "We're going to use every legal avenue available to appeal, and we feel that they're driven by political motives, not facts."
She added that Hyatt provides long-handled dusters, surface-cleaning tools, and wet and dry swiffers for cleaning walls and floors, noting that their use is not mandatory. "Our associates have the tools the resources and the training they need to do the job," she said. "We constantly strive to promote safety."
According to a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine examining a total of 50 hotel properties from five different hotel companies, Hyatt housekeepers had an injury rate that was higher than that of other housekeepers when compared by company.
Across the industry, one solution would be to give workers long-handled tools – like mops – for cleaning, Vossenas said. “The majority of hotels don't give them mops -- they give them rags to use,” she explained. “It's 2011, and women housekeepers are still supposed to be on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Male custodians, janitors – who would ever think of giving them a rag to scrub the floor?” Yet Duke told the Guardian that this is not the case at Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf.
There are four major Hyatts in the Bay Area. The Grand Hyatt, located at San Francisco's Union Square, and the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero are both union hotels. The Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf does not have a union, nor does the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. All four are under boycott; at the unionized properties because workers have not had a contract since August of 2009, and at the non-unionized properties because attempts to unionize have been stymied, according to UNITE HERE.