Kitchen workers at a Miami hotel were called in to work the day of a “big party,” then were unceremoniously fired one by one. As they left, the dishwashers—all but two of whom were Haitian—noticed lighter-skinned new hires had already taken their place.
Their alleged wrongful termination in April 2014 was part of a larger pattern of harassment and racial discrimination at the SLS Hotel South Beach, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission on behalf of 15 former SLS employees.
According to the suit, Haitian stewards at the SLS South Beach kitchen were reprimanded by management for speaking Creole amongst themselves while cleaning dishes. Latino dishwashers, meanwhile, were allowed to speak to each other in Spanish—the suit claims the hotel’s kitchen had no formal language policy.
Kitchen management would allegedly assign Haitian employees to harder, more physically intensive labor than their non-Haitian counterparts. On more than one instance, a single Haitian worker was given work that “ordinarily required two or three workers to complete,” the suit claims.
When the building’s service elevator broke, only Haitian employees were told to carry heavy items up and down the hotel’s stairs, according to the suit, but the Latino staff was never required to do this work. After employees asked the building’s management to fix the broken elevator, one manager allegedly said, “Let those slaves do the work” in reference to the Haitian employees. Throughout the course of their employment at SLS, Haitian employees were allegedly referred to as “fucking Haitians” by kitchen higher-ups, including management and chefs.
In addition to the alleged discrimination going on in the SLS kitchen, the Haitian dishwashers say management actively discouraged them from seeking employment in other parts of the hotel. According to the suit, any open jobs outside the kitchen were swiftly filled by Latino or non-Haitian employees.
Then, on April 9, 2014, 23 dishwashers were fired. All but two of them were Haitian.
The suit claims that employees who weren’t already scheduled to work that day were “tricked” by management, who told them they were required to come in because kitchen was “extremely busy” due to a “big party.” Then, each worker was called into a meeting with the hotel’s HR department and subsequently fired. Each meeting lasted just a few minutes, and employees were allegedly told they had to sign a “Confidential Separation Agreement and General Release” form in order to receive their final paychecks.
None of the employees who worked that day were compensated for the hours they worked before being fired, the suit claims.
That same day, new employees were already washing dishes in the kitchen—according to the suit, most of them were white or Latino, and they had been hired through a third-party company called NSG. Manuel Bolio, the only Latino employee who was fired on April 9, was soon re-hired through NSG to work at the hotel. The suit claims that the majority of the Haitian employees fired that day were not told they could apply to work at the hotel through another company.
“Employers should not be able to avoid liability by using a staffing agency to discriminate when it cannot lawfully do so on its own,” Robert Weisberg, regional attorney at EEOC’s Miami office said in a statement. “The EEOC will be vigilant in ensuring employment discrimination is not hidden behind increasingly complex business relationships, including the outsourcing concept.”
The hotel’s legal team maintains that the employees weren’t terminated on racial grounds.
“SBE made the decision more than two years ago to outsource the staffing of a number of the departments of the SLS South Beach for economic reasons, helping to manage the wide seasonal fluctuations in the Florida market,” James L. Greeley, chief legal officer of SBE Restaurant Management, said in a statement. SBE Restaurant group manages the restaurants at all SLS hotels.
“When this issue first came to our attention, we immediately conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence of wrongdoing,” Greeley continued.
But former hotel employees maintain that their termination was racially-motivated, and the EEOC is backing them up. “The EEOC did a thorough investigation and came to a different conclusion,” Robert Weisberg, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Miami District Office, told The Daily Beast. “They reviewed documents, did interviews at the hotel, and concluded otherwise.”