Representatives from the Indianapolis hospitality industry and dozens of disgruntled hotel workers butted heads at Tuesday's meeting of a City-County Council committee.
The council's Rules and Public Policy Committee last night heard testimony on Proposition 179, otherwise known as the "Freedom to Work" ordinance. The ordinance was introduced after hotel workers filed a lawsuit in January against several major Indianapolis hotels and the temporary work agency Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS).
The lawsuit accused HSS and the hotels of not paying employees for all their hours and also alleges discriminatory practices, which are the focus of the ordinance. The hotel workers' complaint outlines a case that temporary agencies such as HSS have devised agreements with their client hotels barring them from hiring temp workers directly.
The ordinance would remove the barriers that minimum wage hotel workers face when seeking employment directly from hotels.
Many disgruntled employees of HSS came forward to share their stories of abuse under the agency's practices and voice their support for the ordinance. One woman, Eva Sanchez, spoke only Spanish and needed a translator to voice her complaints. "I have not found the freedom I came to America for," Sanchez said. "Many times I found hours missing from my check and I needed that money to feed my family. I could not find any other employment because I was marked as being employed by HSS; I felt like a slave."
Jim Dora, chief executive of General Hotels Corp., spoke of his fears that the ordinance will place unnecessary regulations on the hospitality industry in Indianapolis.
"I'm speaking for the hotel industry, which is singled out by this ordinance," Dora said. "This is just one more thing that administratively takes more time away from our customers and associates." Dora denied that any discriminatory practices were going on at his hotels although he was unclear about the wording of the agreement between his hotels and HSS.
The labor union Unite Here!, which is helping to organize the hotel workers, estimates that HSS controls about 80 percent of temporary hotel workers in downtown Indianapolis.
Councilman Brian Mahern, a Democrat, was unsatisfied with Dora's reasoning for opposing the ordinance and spoke out against the agreements between hotels and temporary work agencies.
"This temporary employment opportunity seems to be turning into indefinite indentured servitude," Mahern said. "We did not wade into this for the first time today. We have promoted (the hotel) industry and they have responded by discriminating against workers."
HSS isn't the only temporary employment agency which would be affected if the ordinance passed. Another agency, LGC Associates, also sent representatives to the meeting to voice objections to the proposal.
Andrew Downing, LGC's director of operations, spoke in defense of his agency's practices.
"This ordinance damages us if we're not able to recoup our initial investment," Downing said. "If my trained employees were taken by the hotels after only working for a few hours for us then we'd go out of business."
Several employees of LGC Associates stood up in defense of their agency and stated that it did not use discriminatory practices. One such employee John Smith talked about what LGC had done for him. "Without LGC I don't know what I would do right now," Smith said. "I would probably be broke right now."
In response to the concerns of the LGC representatives, Council President and co-sponsor of the ordinance Maggie Lewis suggested that the ordinance vote be delayed until July 10 to allow for further review of LGC's practices.
Lewis voiced her support for the workers, but said there was no reason to rush the legislation through and potentially damage a business like LGC for legitimate practices.
"We want to do this right," Lewis said. The rest of the council approved the motion to delay the vote until July.
Dozens of red-shirted workers and community members who attended the meeting in support of the ordinance met afterwards to debrief. Michael Biskar, a representative of the union Unite Here! was optimistic as he addressed the crowd gathered outside.
"LGC does things the right way. This legislation wasn't directed towards LGC," Biskar said. "This legislation is to stop indentured servitude by the hotel industry in Indianapolis by organizations such as HSS."
He vowed to continue to rally support while council members mull the upcoming vote.
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