The sultan of Brunei, owner of the five-star Hotel Bel-Air, might have breathed a small sigh of relief at the election of Donald Trump last month.
His hotel, which has been fighting union and National Labor Relations Board allegations of illegal hiring practices, was on the wrong end of a November federal court ruling that paved the way for a hearing on the matter before an administrative law judge on Jan. 30. That’s 10 days after in an era that could see the rollback of eight years of pro-union advances under the Obama administration.
Only three of the five positions on the NLRB are filled, and when Trump takes office in January, he can effect change in a number of ways, including defunding the board or filling its two vacancies with his appointments, said Chris Tilly, an economist specializing in labor economics and a UCLA professor of urban planning.
It’s unclear clear whether this would impact the Hotel Bel-Air case, which could be appealed to the full board after a decision is rendered in the January hearing.
In addition to filling vacancies on the board, Trump will eventually be able to replace existing members as they reach their five-year term limit.
“I believe at some point in 2017 the balance will shift to Republican appointees,” said Tilly. “He can appoint people who are more likely to be friendly to management and less friendly to labor.”
Under fire, again
Hotel Bel-Air has had a bumpy recent history. It came under fire in 2014 when the sultan approved, among other things, stoning by death as an appropriate punishment for homosexuality. The Hollywood community protested, boycotted Hotel Bel-Air and Beverly Hills Hotel, also owned by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and relocated major celebrity events such as the Oscars “night before” party to other properties.
The charges scheduled to be heard next month stem from a temporary closure of the site, nestled on a 12-acre property between upscale Holmby Hills and Bel Air proper, in 2009. The hotel shut down to undergo renovations and laid off many of its employees, who were represented by Unite Here Local 11.
Prior to reopening in 2011, the hotel hosted a job fair to once again fill its ranks.
According to a July complaint issued by the NLRB, Hotel Bel-Air violated labor laws by refusing to consider or rehire applicants who had been former employees.
Mori Pam Rubin, director of the board’s regional office in West Los Angeles, said a large number of ex-workers who reapplied for jobs at the hotel were not hired. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that of 275 former workers just about a dozen were rehired. Rubin said more than 100 of the former employees that were not taken back were party to the NLRB’s case.
The complaint also states that the hotel refused to recognize Unite Here Local 11 as the designated collective-bargaining representative and illegally made unilateral changes to terms and conditions of employment.
When a business changes ownership, names, or closes temporarily, there can be difficult questions about what union relationships and responsibilities persist through the hiatus, Thomas Lenz, labor and employment attorney at Atkinson Andelson Loya Ruud & Romo’s office in Pasadena, said in an email. These transitions often result in disputes and litigation.
“It’s not uncommon for the labor board to have suspicion if an employer is union, closes the business, and … reopens on a nonunion basis,” he said.
This is the second unfair labor practices complaint levied against the Hotel Bel-Air in recent years. The first, resolved in March, stemmed from a 2010 claim that the hotel issued a unilateral severance plan to employees without approval from the union and violated rules requiring the hotel to negotiate through the union rather than directly with employees.
Representatives of Hotel Bel-Air would not comment on either of the labor cases.
Kava Holdings, the business entity that owns Hotel Bel-Air, filed suit to stop a hearing sought by the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office on the rehiring issue. Kava claimed the board waited too long – more than four years as opposed to the median 100 days – to file an official complaint.
In a ruling last month, a federal judge dismissed the case, saying the court didn’t have the authority to interfere with the agency’s proceedings.
“While some small cases may be resolved for hundreds or a few thousand dollars, a larger case affecting a group of employees over a period of time could cost into the high thousands or millions,” Lenz said.
The NLRB doesn’t have the authority to fine or penalize employers, but it can require they “make whole” their employees, he said. This can include reinstating workers to their previous positions and offering backpay, such as lost wages or benefits.
More than 1,000 unfair labor practice charges were filed in the NLRB’s regional office, which represents part of Los Angeles County and some surrounding communities, in the 2016 fiscal year, Rubin said.
The board found just 30 percent to 40 percent of these charges had merit, and more than 90 percent of those ended in settlements, she said.
In the rare instance a case doesn’t settle, a hearing is held before an administrative law judge, which is scheduled for the Hotel Bel-Air on Jan. 30. The hearing is expected to last five days, but the judge might not issue a decision for months, Rubin said.
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