Hyatt Touch Leaves Labor Touchy : Management: Top executives take a turn working in the firm's hotels. Regular employees in L.A. protest their lack of a union pact and what they called discriminatory practices.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the sort of gaffe for which demanding hotel queen and tax cheat Leona Helmsley might have canned the doorman: A smartly uniformed Darryl Hartley-Leonard crisply closed the taxi door and watched the vehicle speed away before he realized he'd put the wrong luggage inside.

Despite that incident at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Hartley-Leonard's job at Hyatt Hotels Corp. was secure. He is, after all, president of the company.

That was last year, when corporate employees of Hyatt Corp. and its domestic hotel subsidiary spent a day lugging bags, serving lunches and pouring drinks as part of an unusual program to bring those at the top closer to customers and the work force at Hyatt hotels.

They were at it again Wednesday, but the second annual "Hyatt In Touch Day" was accompanied by a sour note as some Los Angeles employees protested their lack of a union contract and what they called discriminatory management practices with the slogan, "Beware the real Hyatt Touch."

"Hyatt's executives can never know what it's like to work for Hyatt in Los Angeles," Maria Elena Durazo, president of a union local that represents employees at three Hyatt hotels in Los Angeles, said at a news conference and rally outside the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles downtown Wednesday morning. "We're outraged and angered at Hyatt Corp.'s attempt to make a mockery of the very real and very difficult working conditions of its workers."

Hyatt launched its In Touch Day last year after executives realized that most of the 430 corporate employees had never worked in a hotel, Hartley-Leonard said.

The reaction of line employees was, "How the heck do you guys know what's going on out here?" Hartley-Leonard recalled.

So the corporate offices in Chicago were closed and everyone there, plus some regional management employees, was dispatched to one of Hyatt's 106 domestic hotels. Today, selected hotel employees will shadow the corporate types to see what they do.

The process is not without precedent, said Tom Pritzker, president of Hyatt Corp. and a member of the rich and powerful Pritzker family that owns Hyatt.

"Mao Tse-tung used to send all the bureaucrats back into the fields," said Pritzker, who spent the day as a doorman, waiter and bellhop. "He did it for two or three years at a crack. That was a bit extreme."

Dan Azark, vice president of Hyatt's hotel development unit, stood at the entrance of the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport Wednesday morning in a doorman's white cap and coat, awaiting luggage-bearing guests.

"I'm trained as an architect," Azark said. "This gets us back in touch with our customers and our employees. Given the demands of our day to day jobs, it's easy to lose sight of that."

While Hyatt's "In Touch Day" is not one of a kind, few companies appear do this sort of thing on a regular basis.

Marriott Corp. takes a slightly different approach, spokeswoman Eileen Peterson said. New employees usually are indoctrinated with basic hotel work before they take their jobs, and veterans periodically head back to the hotels for a refresher, she said.

"We've done that for years and years," Peterson said, adding that many executives frequently pitch in to help with hotel tasks.

If it works, such a back-to-basics program can be good for employee morale, said Wendy Kheel, manager of the real estate and hospitality practice at Laventhol & Horwath, an accounting firm whose specialties include consulting for the hotel industry.

"Typically, the only time you see management working on the line is during a strike," Kheel said. "It's hard to say how much exposure in one day the top management is getting to the needs of the public. . . . But, on the other hand, it can't hurt.

"I think it might be fun from the customer's point of view to know that a Pritzker is carrying your bag," she said.

In Los Angeles, the program hit a snag. The Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 11, which represents about 12,000 workers in Los Angeles including about 600 at three Hyatt hotels, staged demonstrations with workers carrying banners that read "The Hyatt Touch Hurts L.A." and "Hyatt is Out of Touch with L.A."

The workers at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, Hyatt Wilshire and Hyatt on Sunset have been without a contract for more than a year and Local 11 has staged a variety of public incidents--including mass "wake-up calls" for guests by banging drums in front of the hotels at 6:30 a.m.--to embarrass Hyatt into signing a contract already adopted by several other hotels.

Formal negotiations have stalled over a few issues, and union officials say that workers' health benefits are now in jeopardy because Hyatt won't make the higher contributions to the benefits fund that it has already agreed to make. The chain has refused to do so until a contract is signed. Hyatt Regional Vice President Cody Plott said the company has never been told that the benefits are in trouble.

The union also alleged a history of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment by the company and said Hyatt employees are the worst paid among Los Angeles hotel workers.

"It's quite an insult," said Pearl Daniels, a telephone operator at the Hyatt on Sunset for 10 years.

"They're going to come in and wear our uniforms and say they're going to get in touch with us? How are they going to do that?" she said. "I can't afford to pay my bills."

Hartley-Leonard defended his company's record, adding that Hyatt has a good relationship with its unions beyond this local dispute. Last year's In Touch Day led to a continuing series of meetings between management and employees to discuss what's going on in the company, he noted.

"We knew this stunt was going to be pulled, but by damn I wasn't going to let it spoil the day," he said. "We're a good, honorable, caring organization. . . . We'll work our way through this."

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