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A judge orders Terranea to rehire a cook who spoke out in favor of unionizing

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A woman relaxes by the fire pit at sunset at the spa at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t the mac-and-cheese incident or the insubordination over an order of chicken wings that got a veteran cook fired from the upscale Terranea Resort, an administrative law judge ruled.

Instead, Judge Jeffrey D. Wedekind determined, the swanky Rancho Palos Verdes resort illegally fired the cook last year for speaking out in favor of unionizing his fellow workers.

The judge’s decision, issued June 21, calls on the resort to reinstate the cook to his previous job, pay him back wages and other expenses, and post notices at the resort promising not to retaliate against workers who support a union.

Terranea said Tuesday that it will appeal the decision to the National Labor Relations Board.

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“The resort disagrees strongly with the ruling, and believes important facts were disregarded by the administrative law judge,” the resort said in a statement.

Labor laws prohibit employers from firing or otherwise punishing workers for engaging in union activities.

Unite Here Local 11, which has been trying to unionize the workers at Terranea for years, said the ruling shows that resort management is so intent on ending the union efforts that it will illegally fire supporters of the movement.

“They are willing to fire someone who has a perfect record just because he wanted to improve his working conditions,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.

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The case, involving junior sous chef Freddy Lovato, is the latest chapter in a long, contentious battle by management of the resort to keep Unite Here from representing Terranea’s employees.

The conflict has drawn in engaged couples, tech company executives and university officials who frequent the 102-acre resort on the bluffs of Rancho Palos Verdes.

As detailed in Wedekind’s decision, Terranea contends that Lovato was fired after mistakes involving two separate food orders. But the judge said neither incident was serious enough to merit a reprimand or, ultimately, being fired.

In the first incident, Lovato received a written warning on June 2, 2018, for failing to notice when a co-worker used gluten-laden cheese sauce in a gluten-free order of mac and cheese.

He was fired Aug. 13, 2018, after he disobeyed a superior who told him to throw away an order of chicken wings that were prepared with the wrong sauce. Lovato said he wanted to save the wings for his fellow employees to eat later.

Lovato had become an outspoken advocate for Unite Here, starting in October 2017, and was quoted in several news articles criticizing management and the working conditions at Terranea. Terri Haack, president of the resort, told her banquet staff in spring 2018 that the union would represent her staff “over my dead body,” according to Wedekind’s ruling.

The judge ruled that the company “had animus against the union and protected concerted activity, and that it was motivated by that animus when it issued the June 2 final written warning to Lovato for the mac and cheese incident. That same evidence and circumstances establish a strong prima facie case with respect to Lovato’s August 13 termination following the chicken wing incident.”

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.


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