by Lauren Gard
Emeryville's reputation is not exactly glowing after a Tuesday night city council meeting-cum-ragefest where the council and the public clashed over several contentious issues. First up on the agenda was a discussion of race relations in the aftermath of the $3.6 million wrongful termination settlement granted a former city employee in March. Has the city been systematically discriminating against African-American workers? City manager Pat O'Keefe gave a pie-chart-filled presentation that ostensibly proved it has not. Only 38 percent of employment claims filed in the past six years have been race-related, he stated, and a significant proportion of those have been brought by a single employee. Still, he concluded that the city would be wise to hire an independent auditor to take the barometer among city workers. Mayor Nora Davis applauded O'Keefe's findings, and the city council agreed they ought to hire an outside auditor. Yet, when members of the public - including the newly minted millionaire/ ex-employee - stepped up to speak, the picture they painted was not so rosy. Several said the single city employee O'Keefe had referred to had actually filed claims on behalf of a number of others. An NAACP member called the statistics "whitewashed." "I saw the arbitrator's decision," he said, referring to the findings that paved the way for the multimillion-dollar settlement. "You cannot stand by and say you don't have a serious race problem!"
With that - whack! - he slammed a fist onto the podium, prompting a woman in the second row of stately chairs to snap up her head and emit a full body shudder. She was one of a large group of Woodfin Suites workers, supporters, and activists patiently awaiting their turn to vent about the way the city has dealt with the brazen hotel. And, like many of the workers, she couldn't quite understand what was going on because she doesn't speak English.
For months workers and activists have been trying to compel the city to take decisive action against the hotel, and on Friday, a dozen Woodfin housekeepers were axed. It's a long story - so long that the Express devoted more than six thousand words to it back in January. But the gist is that the city council and hotel administration have been at odds since the November 2005 passage of Measure C, which set a minimum wage and conditions for overtime wages for hotel workers. A group of Woodfin housekeepers - some of whom were among those fired - say they're owed some $200,000 in back pay. The Woodfin, they say, should be denied renewal of its annual operating permit until it complies. The Woodfin insists that's bullhonky, yet still hasn't managed to produce documentation the city council says it needs to examine in order to figure out what's what. The city council had given the hotel ninety days to turn over the data, and had ordered that workers be employed through the first week of May. The firings came one week early.
Among the seventeen Woodfin protesters who stepped up to the mic were Juanita Carroll Young, a long-term hotel resident who was recently given notice of eviction as a result of her activism. "I'm being evicted because I'm vocal. Why would being evicted make me less vocal?" Young said. A student from the Graduate Theological Union informed the council that her class had just canceled a graduation party slated to be held at the Woodfin after learning of its stance. And an elementary-school-aged girl whose mother was fired said her life has changed for the worse since then. "I want my mom to have her job back, and also have respect."
Woodfin general manager Hugh MacIntosh spoke last during the public comment session. He was, he said, representing the 120 workers who came to the Woodfin willingly. "We, as a company, have made a commitment to comply with the law," he said, referring to the notion that the hotel has been forced to fire some workers because data from the Social Security Administration indicated that their Social Security numbers did not match their names. "We encouraged workers to rectify their documents, and offered them two weeks paid leave." He also explained that digging up the documentation the city has requested is a time-consuming feat the hotel has been ill prepared to tackle, hence the delay.
Councilman John Fricke called the hotel's decision to fire the workers before the city completed its investigation "really disappointing." He suggested the city set a May 21 deadline to wrap up the investigation. That notion was shot down, and no real progress was made in terms of what should happen next.
Colleague Ken Bukowski stated his belief that the hotel should be required to keep the workers on board. "Here we have someone breaking the law, and we're saying it's okay," he said. "The hotel should put people back to work!" (At that, applause filled the air and one audience member shouted, "Good word! Good word!")
Councilman Dick Kassis, who reminded the crowd of his pro-business, anti-Measure C stance, called the Woodfin's behavior "morally reprehensible. It's going to be very hard for the Woodfin to win back the hearts and souls of the city and the public," he said. He also promised the workers they'd eventually be paid. "We will get you every nickel that you have coming." He said that if undocumented former workers are laying low for fear of being deported, he would make every effort to get the back pay into their hands: "I don't want the Woodfin to benefit in any way by not being able to find people."
Finally, a few Woodfin residents spoke on an unrelated matter. They've been living at the hotel for nearly three years after buying defective condos at the Terraces complex on Horton Street. Councilmember Bukowski had asked the city to discuss the possibility of buying the 21 defective units - an idea these Woodfin dwellers liked very much. Still, talk turned instead to whether Wareham Development - the company behind the Terraces - could be sued for breach of contract, because so many of the displaced residents had purchased Below Market Rate units. When a new condo building goes up, the developer signs a contract with the city promising to provide a certain number of units for low-income buyers. If the condos prove uninhabitable is the developer in hot water? Maybe so.
"The key is there's an agreement between the developer and the city ... that contract that would be the subject of a law suit," John Fricke told the Express Monday. "It would be very relevant to see what the developer's knowledge was about the [quality of] construction at the time of sale."
The city attorney is looking into the matter. Suggestion to Mayor Davis: Perhaps it's time to add a few more lawyers to the roster?