The Trendy Los Angeles Hotel Where Workers Suffer ICE Threats, Homophobia, and Literal Shit
Workers at L.A.’s Freehand Hotel claim they were forced to clean up poop explosions without protective gear and were subjected to sexual harassment and ICE threats.
The Freehand Hotel, a renovated 1920s-era landmark in downtown Los Angeles, boasts on its website of fostering a “community-driven atmosphere.” The upscale resort claims to capture the “social culture of a hostel” by offering trendy shared rooms and solid wood bunk beds at a discount, alongside its luxury suites. It’s one of many modern hotels that sell the experience of the casual traveler to millennials with much more than a backpacker’s disposable income.
“The idea of Freehand is more about capturing the culture of a hostel—meeting people and socializing, having unexpected interactions,” Freehand’s owner, Andrew Zobler, said in a 2017 article from Curbed, “than it is about being one.”
But a new filing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests that the “community-driven atmosphere” of the Freehand does not extend to its employees. In the complaint filed Monday morning, Freehand houseman Jose Santamaria, 55, details a series of six septic tank explosions in the hotel’s luxury private dining room. Santamaria claims that he and his coworkers were forced to wade through five inches of fresh sewage without training or any protective gear. Lacking the proper equipment, they cleaned up with “vacuum cleaners and buckets.” The hotel allegedly held a private event there immediately after.
“On six occasions since October 2018, a basement cistern/septic tank containing sewage has overflowed into the private dining room, causing the floor to become submerged in sewage water containing visible human excrement and toilet paper,” Santamaria wrote in the complaint. “During these cleanups, I had to stand in sewage liquid up to five inches deep in my regular shoes, my feet and lower legs coming into direct contact with sewage. During the second incident, sewage splattered onto my face and shirt while I helped shut the lid of the cistern/septic tank.”
It’s the latest blow to the hotel in a series of controversies, protests, workplace scandals, and abuse investigations that began in November, when the housekeeping staff went public with their intentions to form a union. The months since have produced a tense stand-off between housekeepers—who asked for a fair process to organize—and management, who have been accused of illegal retaliation, making homophobic comments to LGBT union delegates, and even threatening to report workers to ICE.
The battle comes at a watershed moment in Los Angeles, a city where, even amid a raging housing crisis, the tourism and hospitality economy has reached an unprecedented high. In a May 8 report, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board estimated that 1 in every 8.5 workers in L. A. County are employed in the leisure and hospitality sector. Last year, tourism generated 9,700 new jobs, bringing the total to 534,258—its highest total on record. In 2018, visitors had spent an estimated $23.9 billion in the county, generating roughly $36.6 billion in economic impact. But at the Freehand Hotel and others venues across the county, those boons do not seem to be trickling down.
The Freehand Hotel and its parent company Sydell Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Freehand Hotel Los Angeles opened almost two years ago to much fanfare. It was the third location of the Miami-based hotel chain, which now has outlets in Miami Beach, Chicago, and Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Millionaire real estate developer Andrew Zobler, CEO of Sydell Group, which also owns similar chains LINE, Saguaro, NoMad, the Ned, and the colossal Park MGM in Las Vegas, built his brand on refurbishing historic buildings as hip hotels. The 12-story high-rise on Eighth and Olive Streets—once owned by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs—had been empty for sometime, but by June of 2017, it had been transformed by Santa Monica architects Killefer Flammang into a well-lit spot with a public restaurant and bar.
When the hotel opened, the employees were happy to be there, said Maria Hernandez, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 11, a labor union in Southern California and Arizona representing more than 30,000 hospitality workers across the two states. “A lot of the workers that helped open the hotel at the beginning just felt blessed to have a job,” Hernandez said. “But things quickly started to change.”
Edith Merlin, 33, a young woman who has worked in housekeeping at the Freehand for 19 months, dates the shift to late 2017, not long after she started. Wearing her sage Freehand shirt, she spoke with The Daily Beast at the Dunkin’ Donuts across from the hotel, during her lunch break. In October of that year, Merlin said, the hotel had just hired a new director of housekeeping, who started strong during her first three months on the job. (Merlin, who primarily speaks Spanish, talked to The Daily Beast with the help of an interpreter).
“When I first started, they switched managers, and she was good,” Merlin said. “But after her three months probationary period, that manager started changing... she started to treat us differently.”
Soon, the housekeepers were allegedly informed that the hotel had to start saving money, and that there would have to be some changes in their work. They would need to double the number of beds and bathrooms they cleaned within each 30-minute period. The change took an immense toll on the staff, Merlin said, who already lacked the proper equipment to do their job (they carried around cleaning supplies in small suitcases, for example, rather than carts). There was no time to take legally mandated rest breaks. Many of the workers had to arrive early or stay late just to complete the day’s tasks—time for which they were allegedly never paid.
Edith Gutu, 44, a Freehand employee who works in the public areas, said she regularly saw housekeepers crying because they did not have time to drink water. (Gutu also spoke to The Daily Beast through an interpreter). She began offering up her cellphone number to co-workers in case they needed her to bring them water and food on days they found themselves in the crunch.
“I got calls everyday,” she said. “Every hour.”
“Since that change, I saw many of my coworkers go home in tears,” Merlin echoed in her interview with The Daily Beast. “I was one of those women who would go home in tears. It was a lot of work, a lot of stress. The manager would yell at us in a bad tone, would never understand us, would never give us enough time to clean. She would speak to us in a very condescending manner. She told two of my coworkers that housekeeping is a very tough job and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”
By November of 2018, the workers had resolved to form a union. A majority of the housekeeping and maintenance staff signed union authorization cards, Hernandez said. Gutu recalled that a group of workers walked into the lobby on November 12 and asked to speak to management. They wanted what labor activists call “fair process to organize,” meaning agreement from management to remain neutral on the question of a union until employees had determined their terms and garnered a majority of votes from the workers. Instead, they were escorted off the premises within five minutes.
Merlin says the hotel made some improvements after the announcement. They began providing employees with lunch, when before they had had none. They added a few minutes to recommended task-completion times. But they did not restore rest breaks or grant fair process to unionize. Instead, they allegedly began retaliating and issuing threats.
Before November 12, for example, Gutu claims she asked the manager for a change in her hours. She alleged that, while cleaning the men’s bathroom at night, hotel guests had walked in on her and intervened in her work, exposed themselves to her, and sexually harassed her. She had asked for a key to keep men out while she was cleaning, or to change her shift to the daytime. Before the union announcement, she claims this change was in the works. Six months later, Gutu says she has no key, and a male houseman with just two weeks of experience was allegedly given the day shift over her.
Then, on January 23, a group of gay-rights activists and clergy entered the Freehand in an attempt to delegate on behalf of the workers. The management reportedly refused to speak with the representatives. Instead, they sent a security guard to remove them, who likened the group—adorned in rainbow flags—to members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay church deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Two days later, more than 100 LGBT activists protested outside the hotel.
The following month, according to a complaint filed with the California Labor Board obtained by The Daily Beast, management allegedly sent security to inform organizers that if they continued to attempt to unionize, that security would “check documents” and report them to ICE. In the complaint, backed by 75 employees, four labor-rights groups, and former California State Senator Kevin de Leon, a public-areas worker named Mirna Lopez recalled how a security guard tracked her down during a shift and “said that the General Manager was going to check our papers and fire us if we continued to organize.”
Now, the new filing with OSHA, Hernandez told The Daily Beast, suggests that working conditions have not improved, and pose substantial health risks to employees. Santamaria, the employee who filed the complaint, reported developing a rash across his “toes, leg, right hand, and right elbow” after his first encounter with the sewage. It later allegedly got worse after additional exposure to feces.
“It is unconscionable that the hotel required us to come into skin contact with sewage containing human feces and failed to provide us with adequate medical attention and treatment,” Santamaria wrote in the complaint. “Skin contact with human fecal matter is a serious hazard to human health, especially when the contact lasts for extended periods of time.”
Friday, on the intersection of Eighth and Olive, a few of the workers were huddled outside the hotel, holding signs and a megaphone. In red UNITE HERE shirts, the group served as a reminder to the hotel of their request, but also to a city where the tourism industry appears to be booming. Outside the Freehand, it’s harder to forget the people that industry has left out.
The Freehand housekeepers aren’t alone in their struggle for a better workplace. The past few months have seen a spurt in the languishing labor movement—not the least in Los Angeles, where, in January, public school teachers went on strike for a full week in a push for caps on class sizes, a pay raise, decreased standardized-test assignments, full-time nurses and librarians across middle and high schools. The teachers followed on the heels of the mental health workers who went on strike for a full week in December.
“We have seen the significant role that a resurgent labor movement has meant in terms of launching major campaigns to defend the rights of teachers, hotel workers, janitors, university and home-care workers,” Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center, told LA Weekly in an article on California’s labor renaissance.
On their website, the Freehand Hotel underscores its attention to local influences, trends and flavors, calling each of its hotels a “microcosm of its city.” In that sense at least, they are right.