Workers Need Stability, Not Hypocrisy: A Faith Perspective

By Stephen Rohde, Chair, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace

Grace R Dyrness, Vice Chair, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace

Michael Racanelli has worked at Chateau Marmont for five years. At the end of March he was let go due to the coronavirus. Michael might have thought his investment in the hotel would have paid a dividend for him. He was wrong. As Michael put it: “People gave their lives to the Chateau Marmont, and they were left with nothing; just a generic email thanking them for their service.” Some have worked for over thirty years, but this investment of their lives left them with nothing: no ongoing health insurance and no severance. Another worker let go after nearly 23 years, said: “I feel like an insect that has been kicked out of the house.”

By now, many people understand that the coronavirus pandemic affecting all of us is particularly exacerbating America’s pre-existing crisis facing low wage workers. Though we are all struggling in various ways, those of us who are people of faith want to call attention to the recent sacred period of religious holidays. These all celebrate a God of justice and liberation. It is simply immoral that more and more workers are being forced to make the awful choice between paying for food and rent. We wish you could get to know these workers as we have - people like the valets at the Chateau Marmont who were recently profiled in the Hollywood Reporter and called “The ‘Unsung Heroes’ of Hollywood” - incredible people who have given as many as four decades of service to their companies.

But unlike at other hotels and employers around Los Angeles County - including the Andaz West Hollywood, which worked with employees to keep them on their existing healthcare plans during this public health crisis and Pomona College, where workers are paid through commencement - the Chateaus owner Andre Balazs made the decision to fire employees with no extended health care and no severance. 

In response to the workers’ organizing, Balazs made a 100,000 dollar contribution to a GoFundMe account his hotel set up to support their workers. Though one might be inclined to appreciate this gesture, it needs to be placed into a larger perspective. For Balazs, whose net worth is estimated at 700 million dollars, a donation of this amount is like someone worth $50,000 giving seven dollars. What is worse, his net worth is surely owed, in part, to workers like Michael Racanelli, who have given themselves to their work in the hotel and have been let go. Workers told us that they are not bitter about the owner’s wealth; they simply want work that pays a decent wage to live a quality life.

Even more striking, for a long time the top priority of his workers wouldn’t cost him a penny. They wanted to know that when the hotel starts rehiring, the jobs they had served for decades would still be available to them, starting with the workers who have served there the longest. When it was clear the company would neither communicate this to workers directly nor make a clear legally binding commitment to do so, Chateau workers turned to LA City Hall to ensure they would have full legal rights to job security. On April 29th, they won, with the City Council unanimously passing two ordinances that would require businesses like the Chateau to attempt to rehire laid off workers before offering open positions to new employees. 

This is not an unusual demand - not only did it pass in the city of Los Angeles, both also Los Angeles County and the City of Long Beach recently enacted a similar ordinance, and Santa Monica has had a right of recall on its books for close to twenty years following 9/11.

At times like this, all of us need to pull together to pursue the good of our community—owners, managers, customers, and workers. This is why, as people of faith and residents of Pasadena, we urge Pasadena to pass worker recall and retention laws to make sure workers in the hospitality and service industries are rehired when businesses reopen, and workers can keep their jobs if the ownership of their companies change. This is the right and moral thing to do. Workers have built the global reputation Los Angeles County rightly possesses; now is the time to show that this reputation is based on justice and fairness for all. 

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