L.A. hotels hire migrants from Skid Row homeless shelter to replace striking workers. Gascón investigates

SANTA MONICA, CA - OCTOBER 23, 2023 - State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, left, confers with Norelis Vargas, right, from Venezuela, along with Angelica Salas, center, Executive Director of CHIRLA, after a press conference to address the allegation that refugee workers are using a dodgy agency to provide houseless strikebreakers to work at Le Meridien Defina hotel in Santa Monica on October 23, 2023. Vargas was hired as a temporary worker at the Four Points Hotel near LAX and currently lives at the Union Rescue Mission. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
4:33 p.m. Oct. 23, 2023: An earlier verison of this story misspelled Hannah Petersen’s last name as Peterson.

When Norelis Vargas heard about housekeeping work at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, she did not hesitate to sign up.

Vargas, 39, who migrated from Venezuela and entered the U.S. about three months ago seeking asylum, had been living with her husband and four children at Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter on Skid Row, and needed the income. But when she arrived at Four Points by Sheraton on Oct. 6, Vargas said she was surprised to find a group of hotel employees picketing.

"I thought, it's good they are fighting for their rights," Vargas said. But she said she felt uncomfortable. "The people outside, it was their job, and I was the one replacing them."

Vargas is among those from Skid Row's migrant population who have been recruited in recent weeks to work at unionized hotels in Santa Monica and near Los Angeles International Airport where workers have gone on strike. In addition to the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, migrants were hired at the Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica and the Holiday Inn LAX, according to interviews with migrants employed as temporary workers and organizers with Unite Here Local 11.

Now Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón is launching an investigation into working conditions for migrants hired at hotels based on information brought to him by Unite Here Local 11, which represents workers involved in the largest U.S. hotel strike. Gascón said he is concerned about potential wage theft and violations of child labor law.

“We are going to make sure this is investigated thoroughly. It will be a fair and impartial investigation,” Gascón said at a news conference Monday in front of Le Meridien Delfina.

“If there are violations of the law, there will be severe consequences for this. We want to make sure that our community understands there will be no tolerance for the exploitation of refugees,” Gascón said, citing reporting by The Times on the issue.

Gascón recently claimed the endorsement of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in announcing his reelection campaign.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. speaks, surrounded by Unite Here Local 11 members and organizers in red shirts
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced at a Monday news conference that he is launching an investigation into working conditions for migrants hired at hotels. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

At Monday's news conference, state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) expressed outrage over the allegations against the hotels and staffing agencies.

"It makes me furious," said Durazo, who represents Central and East L.A., and once served as president of Unite Here Local 11.

The hotel's actions are "indefensible," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the advocacy organization Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles. "Staffing agencies, companies taking advantage of the desperation of the individual to try to begin their life, and then not pay them their proper earnings, not give them a full accounting of their hours worked — we see this every day here in L.A."

Since more than 15,000 workers began intermittent strikes at about 60 Southern California hotels in early July, employers have been replacing those union members with managers and temporary workers recruited through apps, such as Instawork, staffing agencies and by other means.

Read more: ‘Take your union and shove it.’ When your L.A. hotel stay comes with a strike picket line

Unite Here organizer Hannah Petersen, who has been working with the migrants, said some hired at Le Meridien Delfina were among hundreds of migrants Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shipped on buses to L.A. this year as a political stunt meant to harness anti-immigrant sentiment and deride “sanctuary” cities across the country. Frank Wolf, a pastor at Echo Park United Methodist Church, is among those who have greeted migrants arriving on buses from Texas.

“They were exhausted and they were tired and they were scared when they came to Los Angeles,” he said at the news conference. “It’s heart-wrenching to find out that some of these very workers that we welcomed on those buses are being exploited.”

Refugees and asylum seekers are legally allowed to seek work in the U.S. Federal labor law allows employers to hire replacement workers during unfair labor practice strikes and economic strikes, but unions typically condemn the use of so-called scab labor.

Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said employers who hired migrants "had stooped to a new low" by tapping a vulnerable group of workers to undermine employees striking for a living wage.

“I can’t believe they are forcing these people, who are so desperate, to cross the picket line," Petersen said. "Instead of addressing L.A.'s housing crisis, the hotel industry prefers to exploit the unhoused as strikebreakers to avoid paying their own workers enough to afford housing themselves."

Owners and operators of the three hotels did not respond to requests for comment. Real estate investment group Pebblebrook Hotel Trust owns Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica, and Capital Insight owns Four Points LAX. Highgate Hotels operates both hotels. The Holiday Inn LAX is owned by a subsidiary of Chinese firm Esong Group and is operated by Aimbridge Hospitality.

Read more: Low wages, lousy shifts, little room for advancement: Immigrant workers describe on-the-job discrimination

Eleven people living at the Skid Row shelter confirmed they had been hired at hotels where employees were protesting outside. Most had migrated from Venezuela or Colombia. Many did not provide their names, fearing repercussions.

They described heavy cleaning loads and long hours. Some said they were given no prior information on how much they would be paid hourly, although others said they were told on their first day that they would be paid $19 an hour. Migrant workers said they were not told and did not know the name of the agency that recruited them.

Venezuelan migrant Sebastian Atencio, 34, showed up at Le Méridien Delfina Santa Monica on Sept. 26 during a recent wave of strikes. Atencio said he was given a heavy workload and forced to work without breaks. He was hired to wash dishes at another hotel — but they also asked him to clean bathrooms during the same shift, which he said he felt was unsanitary.

One migrant worker, a 17-year-old student at Belmont High School who requested anonymity, said he skipped two days of school to clean rooms at the Holiday InnLAX.

He and his mother, who secured work as a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn, received payment via banking app Zelle from an agency called Arya Staffing Services Inc. Aimbridge Hospitality did not respond to questions about whether staffing agencies it used had secured appropriate permits to employ minors.

A review of an Oct. 13 pay stub for a worker hired at the Four Points by Sheraton shows that person obtained hotel work through staffing agency AV Professional Services.

Alinne Espinoza, who is listed as the registered agent for both staffing agencies, said her business is properly licensed and operates legally.

Read more: L.A.'s striking hotel workers are being roughed up by employers' security, union says

"Our company works with many different types of people that come from our local community," she said in an email. "We work hard on a daily basis to incorporate as many people as possible into the labor market under competent, dignified and just conditions."

A woman in a red shirt talks to workers outside Union Rescue Mission
Unite Here Local 11 organizer Hannah Petersen speaks with workers outside the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row. (Suhauna Hussain / Los Angeles Times)

Outside the Skid Row shelter on a recent evening, Petersen introduced herself in Spanish to a group of migrants who had been hired at striking hotels. Several pushed strollers. Young children crowded around their parents, one sucking a green lollipop.

"My name is Hannah," she said to the group. "The union is out there fighting for the rights of immigrant workers."

Many migrants living at the shelter had told her they wanted permanent jobs, she explained, and so that day she and other organizers would be gathering information to help them create their resumes.

Some of the shelter's residents approached the organizers, who were armed with clipboards, and fielded questions about the migrants' work experience, scribbling their answers down. Other migrants, concerned that the organizers were working for immigration authorities, left.

Read more: These L.A. strippers won a union. But the dance isn't over

Petersen, the daughter of the union's co-president, said she first encountered homeless migrant workers Sept. 27 when she was protesting alongside Unite Here Local 11 members at Le Meridien Delfina.

Hotel housekeepers, front desk workers, cooks and other employees are seeking new contracts with higher wages and improved benefits and working conditions. The union members say they don't earn enough to afford housing near their jobs.

But hotel operators say the union is overreaching in its demands for raises and employer support of housing initiatives unrelated to hotel operations, including a measure set for the 2024 ballot that would require hotels in Los Angeles to rent vacant rooms to homeless people. American Hotel & Lodging Assn. Chief Executive Chip Rogers called it a "dangerous demand," citing a September poll the industry group commissioned in which 72% of respondents said they would be reluctant to book a hotel room in Los Angeles "if hotels there are forced to house homeless people next to paying guests."

Petersen said it is hypocritical for hotels to oppose homelessness measures while employing unhoused people as replacement workers during the strike.

Keith Grossman, an attorney representing a group of more than 40 Southern California hotel owners and operators in negotiations with Unite Here Local 11, said in an email that hotels "did not knowingly use unhoused individuals, if they even did so."

"I do wonder how a hotel is supposed to know whether a person is homeless if they list an address and show up bathed and clean and sober?" he said. "This appears to be another red herring generated by Local 11."

Unite Here Local 11 has previously criticized hotels' strike-time use of Instawork, an app that matches businesses with short-term, seasonal workers in hospitality.

In July, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Instawork and hotel management company Aimbridge. In one allegation, the union said the company violated federal labor law by disqualifying workers hired through the app from future work when they miss a single shift, even if they do so to participate in legally protected activity, such as respecting a strike.

Vargas, the worker hired at the Four Points hotel, was among a handful of people remaining that evening outside Union Rescue Mission. The rest had dispersed, distrustful and worried that union organizers were sent by immigration authorities. Vargas said she hoped the other residents would come around.

"I'm going to be the one who finds good work so they know it's not a lie," Vargas said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.