Hotel Bel-Air unfairly refused to rehire workers after renovation, judge rules
After a two-year shutdown to remodel the swanky Hotel Bel-Air, hotel administrators came up with bogus reasons not to rehire many of its former union workers in a scheme to avoid recognizing the labor group that represented the employees, according to a recent ruling by an administrative law judge.
The judge made the ruling last week in response to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board by Unite Here Local 11. The labor group that represents hotel and restaurant workers accused the five-star hotel of violating labor laws by abruptly ending negotiations with the union after the hotel closed for renovations in 2009 and taking extraordinary measures to avoid rehiring union workers when the hotel reopened in 2011.
“The record shows countless examples of former employees, almost all of whom are union members, being excluded after the initial interview either without sufficient explanation or because of a bogus explanation,” Administrative Law Judge Lisa D. Ross wrote in her 20-page decision, issued Dec. 19.
Ross ordered that Hotel Bel-Air recognize Unite Here Local 11 as the bargaining unit for workers at the hotel, offer 106 former employees their previous positions at the hotel and pay them back pay and damages “as a result of the discrimination against them,” among other remedies.
“This is an incredible, long-overdue victory for the former workers of the Hotel Bel-Air, who were kicked out of the hotel for no other reason than the hotel’s desire to bust the union,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11. “These illegal and immoral practices have no place in our city. We hope the hotel, after eight years, will agree to let their workers return to work.”
A hotel representative said the hotel planned to appeal the ruling to the National Labor Relations Board, whose five members are political appointees. Two of the five seats are currently vacant. The other three were filled by President Trump.
“We are filing our appeal to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and believe we will be vindicated once the entire legal process is over,” said Brittany Williams, director of communications for the hotel, who declined to comment further on the matter.
It is not clear how much the hotel would pay under the judge’s ruling, but Petersen estimates that workers could collect as much as $75 million for wages they lost since the hotel reopened without offering them their former jobs.
The dispute between the ritzy hotel and its union began in 2009 when the hotel announced it would close for a “multimillion-dollar” renovation, putting more than 300 staffers out of work. The hotel offered severance packages to laid-off workers and its general manager promised to do his best to find the staffers jobs in other hotels owned by the Hotel Bel-Air’s operator, the Dorchester Collection, or at competitor hotels.
The hotel, ringed by 12 acres of landscaped gardens, has been a favorite haunt of Hollywood’s rich and celebrated. In 1962, Marilyn Monroe posed for some of her most memorable photos by the pool and in a hotel room. Actress Joan Collins renewed her wedding vows at the hotel in 2009, near a picturesque pond known as Swan Lake.
When the hotel reopened in October of 2011, Unite Here members protested in front of the hotel, accusing hotel management of closing the hotel only to force out the union by refusing to give former staffers their old jobs back.
A few months after the protests, Unite Here filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the hotel of creating bogus reasons for not hiring former staffers, refusing to recognize or bargain with the union and changing the terms and conditions for workers at the hotel without prior notice to the union.
Federal labor laws say such complaints must first be heard by an administrative law judge in a trial, complete with witnesses and evidence presented by both sides in the dispute.
According to Ross’ decision, dozens of former employees applied for their prior positions during a job fair and were given no explanation why they were not offered their former position or were told they did not have enough experience for the job, even though several of the staffers previously held the same positions for up to 25 years.
“I find that the reasons given for excluding these former employee applicants are, in many cases, preposterous,” Ross wrote in her ruling.
A total of 176 former employees applied for 306 job openings but only 67 advanced to the second round of interviews and only 24 were hired during the job fair, according to Ross’ ruling. She said the evidence shows that the hotel, in some cases, hired “less qualified, non-former employee applicants, blatantly bypassing more qualified former employee applicants.”
During the trial, the human resources manager for the hotel was asked by union lawyers about the preparations made to deal with the union once the hotel reopened. The human resources director, Sandra Arbizu, described taking the “preventative kind of work” to ensure that a union was not needed to represent the workers at the hotel.
The five-star hotel on Stone Canyon Road is operated by the Dorchester Collection, the successor to the Dorchester Group, which was established by the government-controlled Brunei Investment Agency in 1996 to manage the oil-rich country’s luxury hotels in Europe and the U.S. It also operates the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Rooms at the Hotel Bel-Air are priced as high as $4,800 for a 755-square-foot room with heated floors and private Jacuzzi.
In April, Los Angeles city leaders called for a boycott of the Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel because the government of Brunei had announced plans to implement Islamic criminal laws that would lead to punishments such as stoning for gay sex and amputation for petty theft. Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and Elton John have all publicly condemned the Brunei government’s laws and stopped staying at the hotels.