Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Dave Jamieson’

Hotel Workers Stiffed Millions In Wages, Lawsuit Alleges

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Dave JamiesonMore than a dozen low-level hotel workers in Indianapolis have filed a class-action lawsuit against ten of the city’s hotels and a labor staffing agency, claiming they were routinely cheated out of pay with the knowledge of hotel management.

The workers — most of them Hispanic immigrants employed as housekeepers, dishwashers and bussers — say they were forced to work off the clock and through their unpaid breaks, sometimes pushing their earnings below the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The suit could potentially involve more than a thousand workers and millions of dollars in claims, according to the hotel workers union UNITE HERE, which is organizing workers in Indianapolis.

The employees named in the suit worked for a labor agency called Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS), which provides lower-rung workers to hotel companies like Hyatt on a temporary basis in cities across the country. On its website, HSS declares itself a client’s “secret weapon for improving service while cutting costs — 12% annually, on average.”

A HuffPost report in August chronicled how the outsourcing of work to HSS has led to a two-class system within certain hotels, as lesser-paid agency workers toil alongside better-compensated direct hires. Several Indianapolis hotel workers told HuffPost then that the agency shorted them on their wages and threatened them with dismissal if they couldn’t finish their work in the allotted time. The CEO of HSS said at the time that any instances of unpaid wages were honest mistakes and that the company took the allegations seriously.

Management at Georgia-based HSS could not immediately be reached for comment. This isn’t the first time the company has been sued by workers. A former manager in Pittsburgh once filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired because he stood up for housekeepers who weren’t being paid what they were owed. The company has also been criticized for an advertisement it ran in a hotel trade publication that showed tiny workers inside a vending machine, apparently ready for purchase.

The HSS-staffed hotels named in the Indianapolis lawsuit include Embassy Suites, Marriott, Westin, Hyatt, Holiday Inn and Omni properties.

Martha Gonzalez, 28, one of the workers now suing, tells HuffPost she worked at Hyatt and Marriott properties as an HSS employee earning the minimum wage. She says that she was required to come in early and prepare her housekeeping cart before punching in, and that she often wound up working through her lunch break or clocking out to finish work at the end of the day, to avoid being punished. She says she quit last summer.

“I was sick of getting a check that didn’t meet my family’s needs,” Gonzalez, who’s from Mexico, says through a translator. “Every check was just too small. I was so tired of working in a place under pressure, getting calls from the manager, ‘Are you finished? Are you finished?'”

Plaintiff Anastasia Amantecatl, who worked for HSS as a housekeeper at a Marriott, claims that she was compelled to show up two hours before her shift actually started each day. “This was necessary for her to complete her required number of rooms for the day,” the lawsuit states. “She was not compensated for this time nor was she paid the required overtime premium for this time.” The lawsuit alleges that between 20 and 25 housekeepers found themselves in a similar situation at the hotel.

Many hotel workers in Indianapolis have told HuffPost that their workloads have increased in recent years as their wages have remained flat or even gone down. Workers and their advocates partly blame the outsourcing of previously in-house jobs for deteriorating work conditions.

A hotel company can save money by shifting some of its workforce to a company like HSS, since it would no longer be responsible for providing costly worker benefits. But workers employed by labor agencies are technically temps, sometimes going years on end without receiving health coverage or pay raises. Similar temp outsourcing has become widespread in the warehousing and logistics industries, where many workers blame the temp model for their low wages and lack of benefits.

Officials with UNITE HERE argue that the outsourcing at hotels has hidden costs for the city and state, such as the taxpayer-funded health care that many agency workers’ families end up using. “I don’t think the taxpayers of Indianapolis should be the ones to subsidize these workers because these corporations don’t want to [provide] living wages and benefits,” Becky Smith, a union organizer, told HuffPost last summer.

Salvador Perez, a 38-year-old father of two from Mexico, is also named in the hotel lawsuit. He says that he worked for HSS for the last few months of 2011, earning the $7.25 minimum wage as a dishwasher. He claims he would regularly work a 40-hour week but end up being paid only for 35. He says he’s suing with his colleagues to recover back wages and “end the exploitation that’s happening at hotels downtown.”

“We struggled to pay for diapers for our baby,” Perez says. “We had to go to food pantries and churches to feed our families. They always said, ‘It’ll come with the next check, it’ll come with the next check.’ But it didn’t.”

This article appeared in The Huffington Post on January 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Jamieson is the Huffington Post’s workplace reporter.Before joining the D.C. bureau, Jamieson reported on transportation issues for local Washington news site TBD.com and covered criminal justice for Washington City Paper. He’s the author of a non-fiction book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, and his stories have appeared in SlateThe New RepublicThe Washington Post, and Outside. A Capitol Hill resident, he’s won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award.

Airport Workers Say Pay Is Illegally Low

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Dave JamiesonEvery day she goes to work at O’Hare International Airport, Elda Burke faces the same dilemma.

Burke, 30, works as a passenger attendant at the airport, escorting the elderly and disabled to and from their gates by wheelchair. Even though the airlines describe this as a free service, Burke’s employer has her working partly for tips, which is why her base pay is a low $6.50 an hour, somewhat like a restaurant server’s, rather than the typical Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.

But unlike diners at a restaurant, many of the passengers Burke will be escorting on their holiday travels this week won’t realize she’s working for tips — and by federal law, she won’t be allowed to tell them.

“We cannot say anything,” Burke says. “If we do that, they can fire us.”

Burke works for Illinois-based Prospect Airport Services, Inc., a company that has contracts to supply service workers at O’Hare and other airports around the country. Prospect and similar contractors often pay their workers like Burke at a reduced rate before tips, which allows them to shift a portion of the salary burden to passengers. Such a pay scheme is perfectly legal, so long as the employer makes up the difference whenever a worker comes up short of the minimum wage after tips.

But several attendants at O’Hare claim their pay often works out to be less than the legal minimum, an issue that lies at the center of an ongoing unionization push among service workers at the airport. The Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize workers at O’Hare and Chicago’s other airport, Midway International, this year.

SEIU officials say a union could help airport workers earn a living wage. They note that many have not seen raises in years and don’t have paid vacation or sick days, even though they carry some security responsibilities, like checking the cleaning crews who enter planes. Burke says she started out at $5 per hour in 2002 and has only received a $1.50 pay bump in her nine years. She also says she has gone without health insurance the entire time because the company plan is too expensive.

“A lot of them are paid poverty wages, in some cases below the minimum wage, and they have no access to affordable health care insurance,” says Izabela Miltko with SEIU Local 1. “They’re organizing to have a dignified workforce and to win higher wages.”

Tom Murphy, general counsel for Prospect, says that the company has been following all state and federal laws, and that the complaints from workers like Burke amount to “a union ruse.” A handful of workers recently filed labor-law complaints against the company with the state labor department, though a subsequent inspection of the company by officials found that the company was in compliance with minimum-wage laws, Murphy notes.

“For years they’ve always gotten paid well more than the minimum wage,” Murphy says. “Their paychecks match the law. I don’t know what more we can do.”

A labor department spokesperson says the state is currently investigating the allegations.

Workers who don’t earn the minimum wage are supposed to fill out “tip sheets” detailing how much they earned in tips and how much they’re owed by their employer, if anything. These sheets are rarely if ever filled out, Murphy says, because workers do in fact take home sufficient pay.

But Burke and some of her colleagues at O’Hare say many workers don’t fill out tip sheets because they feel their supervisors won’t deal with it or because they don’t want to be seen as not pulling their weight. Several of them told HuffPost that they often don’t earn the $1.75 in tips each hour that they’re expected to. According to a survey of workers done by the SEIU, 86 percent said there was a time they didn’t earn the minimum wage.

“A lot of people just stopped reporting their tips,” says Aaron Crawford, a 20-year-old aspiring pilot who takes public transit to O’Hare from Chicago’s South Side for each shift with the wheelchair. “They know it won’t be taken care of.”

Some workers attribute their low pay partly to the fact that they work in the international terminal, where many of the foreign travelers don’t have the tipping customs of Americans. The federal Air Carrier Access Act that requires airlines to staff attendants for disabled and elderly travelers also prevents those attendants from soliciting tips or putting out tip jars.

Waldo Gucwa, a 22-year-old student who’s been an attendant at O’Hare for three years, says that some workers who are desperate for tips try to artfully steer the conversation with passengers toward employment, in hopes that the passenger might ask if they can accept tips. Gucwa also says that many young, apparently able-bodied travelers seem to request wheelchair service as a way to bypass the lines at security, and often choose not to tip at the end of the ride. The attendants are forbidden from asking a passenger if he or she is actually disabled.

“There are days you leave here with 7 bucks, 8 bucks” in tips, says Gucwa, who said he supports the idea of a union. “When you go home and do the math, you’re not even getting the minimum wage, and that’s the reason people are getting real riled up around here.”

The O’Hare workers aren’t the first to say they’re earning less than the minimum wage escorting passengers. Last year a group of 20 workers who drive passenger carts at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sued Prospect. The workers claimed the company had switched them to a tipped pay schedule because it had put in a low bid on the airport contract and could no longer afford to pay the full minimum wage, according to the suit. The workers said they did not “customarily” receive tips and were required to do odd jobs on top of escorting passengers.

Worker paychecks, the complaint alleged, were “extremely confusing” and often led to a wage below the federal and state minimums. Workers said they stopped reporting their low tips because they feared losing their jobs. Prospect denied the allegations and the case was settled, according to court documents.

This summer, wheelchair escorts at Bush International Airport in Houston lodged similar allegations against their employer, Nashville-based PrimeFlight Aviation Services. The workers were earning between $5.25 and $6.35 per hour before tips, and some told the Houston Chronicle that they were pressured to pad their tips out of fear they’d be punished or lose their jobs if their employer had to pay them more.

One worker told the paper she reports $80 worth of false tips each month, nonexistent earnings that she would be paying taxes on. PrimeFlight was receiving state funding for its workforce — up to $2,000 per employee — but the company was recently suspended from the subsidy program, the Chronicle reported earlier this month.

Keisha Davis, a passenger attendant at O’Hare, says she’s been trying to raise her two-year-old twins on her salary, but she can’t do it without food stamps and Medicaid. She says she was earning more money when she was pregnant, taken off wheelchair duties and paid a flat rate of $8.25 per hour. Now that she’s escorting passengers again, she too says her tips don’t boost her pay to where it needs to be.

“We really couldn’t make it without government assistance,” Davis says. “It’s like living from paycheck to paycheck to paycheck. … At the end, there’s nothing left.”

This article appeared in The Huffington Post: Business on November 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Jamieson is the Huffington Post’s workplace reporter. Before joining the D.C. bureau, Jamieson reported on transportation issues for local Washington news site TBD.com and covered criminal justice for Washington City Paper. He’s the author of a non-fiction book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, and his stories have appeared in SlateThe New RepublicThe Washington Post, and Outside. A Capitol Hill resident, he’s won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award.

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