Indianapolis, IN: Hotel workers in Indianapolis filed a lawsuit in federal court today against Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS) and ten major hotels for wage and hour violations. This landmark lawsuit is the broadest wage and hour case in the history of the Indianapolis hotel industry. If the lawsuit is certified as a collective action, eligible employees as a group could be entitled to as much as ten million dollars in back pay. An action was held this morning in front of HSS offices with hotel workers and community supporters in conjunction with the filing of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed against HSS, a national subcontracting company based in Atlanta. HSS operates in almost every downtown Indianapolis hotel. The current lawsuit also implicates the Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place Airport, Marriott downtown (LaSalle), JW Marriott (White Lodging), Westin (Host Hotels), Conrad (Kite Realty), Embassy Suites (Simon Property Group), Canterbury (Turner Woodard), Holiday Inn Airport, and the Omni Hotel, all of which use HSS to subcontract workers.
This lawsuit is not the first time that HSS has stirred controversy. In 2010, HSS and the Hyatt Indianapolis were fined $50,000 by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for record keeping and training violations. Two years ago, hotel workers won a $20,000 from HSS and two Hyatt hotels in Pittsburgh through a class action lawsuit.
Some may try to impugn this lawsuit and the attendant publicity as being part of a comprehensive strategy against the Right to Work legislation. It very well may be. Nonetheless, that does not mean the claims in the lawsuit do not have merit. I have personally talked to workers in the hospitality industry and have been told stories about their being ordered to do work off the clock, the movement of overtime hours to short weeks so the employer won't have to pay time and a half and waitresses and bartenders who are told to do non-tip work at subminimum ($2.13 an hour) wage. When I ran for Pike Township School Board, I was told by bus drivers and monitorsthey were often told to do runs off the clock and they fear they had of retaliation for complaining. Some tried talking to School Board members (including one supposed pro-worker member who immediately became pro-administation upon election) and they would not even look into the matter.Indianapolis city government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars subsidizing the downtown hospitality industry. While this city has rebuilt its economy with service industry jobs, hotel workers in Indianapolis are some of the lowest paid in the nation. Hotel workers here start at $7.25 per hour and are offered few or no benefits. Now, some of the hotels that the city has chosen to subsidize are being accused of illegal activity, of not even paying their employees the minimum wage. Meanwhile, these hotels are slated to make three to four million dollars each during the week of the Super Bowl alone. During the Super Bowl, room rates in downtown hotels are expected to cost more than $1000 per night.Workers in the lawsuit allege that HSS and area hotels regularly fail to pay them for all the hours they work and force them to work off the clock and without breaks. In addition to wage and hour violations, the lawsuit also alleges that current contracts between hotel employers and HSS create an unfair monopoly power of HSS over hotel labor in Indianapolis. The federal Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor is currently investigating HSS practices in Indianapolis hotels.
“Every day I was told by my Hyatt manager to come in to work early and work before clocking in, and forced to work through my breaks without being paid," says Martha Gonzalez, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who used to work as a housekeeper at a Hyatt hotel through the HSS agency. "I am supporting my three children and often there was not enough money in my paycheck to pay for food."
A debate over the Right to Work legislation and the value of unionization will be reserved for another time. Nonetheless, Indiana already has very strict wage laws in place. The failure to pay these employees their wages means the employers are subject to treble damages plus attorney's fees.
Our laws, however, are only so good as the public officials who enforce them. I have no doubt that these worker abuses have been raised before. Did public officials listen to their complaints and investigate them? We should not have gotten to the point of where a lawsuit needed to be filed. The law is clear. You cannot make people work off the clock. You have to pay them overtime. We taxpayers are subsidizing the hospitality industry to the tune of millions of dollars. Is it too much to ask that they follow the law?