Oakland Hotel Workers and Chinatown Groups Urge City Not to Approve New Hotel Because of Alleged Wage Theft

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Hotel workers and Chinatown community groups protesting outside the lot where a new hotel is proposed. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • Hotel workers and Chinatown community groups protesting outside the lot where a new hotel is proposed.
Hotel workers and Chinatown community groups are asking the City of Oakland to deny construction permits for a proposed Hampton Inn Hotel because city investigators found that the company behind the project, Balaji Enterprises, violated Oakland’s minimum wage and sick leave laws at another hotel in the city. Protesters rallied at the site of the proposed new hotel on 11th Street between Franklin and Webster this afternoon.

“This company wants to bring low wages and no-benefit jobs to downtown Oakland,” said Aida Gonzalez, a worker at the nearby Marriott Hotel who is a member of UNITE HERE 2850.

Gonzalez lives in downtown Oakland and said that she fears being displaced if the hotel industry’s jobs do not continue to pay decent wages. She said permitting the construction of a hotel by a company that has violated Oakland’s wage laws and other worker protections would establish a bad precedent that could harm hotel workers across the city.

Balaji Enterprises is owned by the local hotelier family, the Patels, who currently operate the Holiday Inn Express near the Oakland Airport and the Hampton Inn and Suites in Alameda. They also own the Vue Hotel in Mountain View, as well as other properties.

Last year, workers at the Patel’s Holiday Inn Express complained to the City of Oakland that their employer was committing wage theft. The city conducted an investigation and on February 3 of this year, Oakland’s contracts and compliance office issued findings that Balaji Enterprises had cheated its workers out of their wages, interfered with workers exercising paid sick days, and that the hotel also retaliated against its workers after passage of the new minimum wage law, Measure FF, by “inconsistently” cutting their hours. The city also found that Balaji Enterprises illegally took back accrued and unused vacation time from employees and that the hotel managers prevented workers from taking breaks.

“We are extremely disappointed in the way the investigation was conducted and the lack of due process," said Drhuv Patel in a statement issued today through Full Court Press, a public relations firm. "We plan to respond to all of the allegations.”

In a statement issued last November, after a similar protest, Drhuv Patel said that the hotel workers union was turning a land use issue into an opportunity to "slander" the Patel family's business. The Pates' hotels are currently not unionized. "We own two small hotels in the East Bay and have a great track record of retention and growth from within. Some team members have worked for us for over 16 years," said Patel.

Francisco Coronado worked at the Hampton Inn in Alameda for nine months in 2009 and 2010. He said workers at that hotel also had wages stolen from them by Balaji Enterprises, but that hotel was not part of Oakland’s investigation. According to Coronado, the Hampton Inn’s managers would often round down the time logged on employee punch cards, resulting in as much as an hour shaved off their pay. “The owners of these hotels really don’t deserve to build another hotel in Oakland because they stole wages from me and my co-workers,” said Coronado.

Deborah Barnes of Oakland’s contracts and compliance department said that the city’s recent findings of wage theft and other legal violations at the Patel’s hotels are preliminary. She said Balaji Enterprises has the opportunity to respond to the city’s report, and that if the company objects to the remedies proposed by the city, Balaji Enterprises can opt for a hearing before an independent arbitrator.

The Patels are major political donors in Oakland. According to city records the Balaji company and members of the Patel family contributed at least $10,520 to city council candidates and political action committees since 2012.

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