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‘It was like hell’: California hotel workers break their silence on abuse

By / October 18, 2018

Staff at upscale Terranea Resort claim they were subject to repeated sexual harassment as California bill to end abuse stalls

Just outside of Los Angeles in Ranchos Palos Verdes, the Terranea Resort boasts fine dining, a golf course, scenic beachfront views, and accommodations ranging from luxury guest rooms to private, secluded villas. While it may be a paradise for guests, resort workers claim they are subjected to a culture that has enabled sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The Terranea Resort, which has hosted conferences attended by luminaries including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, first came under scrutiny for harboring sexual harassers in summer 2017, when a former dishwasher and chef assistant, Sandra Pezqueda, filed a sexual harassment and assault lawsuit against the resort and the staffing agency that employed her to work there.

In the lawsuit, Pezqueda claimed she experienced repeated sexual harassment and assault by her supervisor who retaliated against her rejections by changing her work schedule.

“After you speak up, they try to look for reasons to complain about your work to make you feel bad about your work, when, before you reported, you were never scolded,” Pezqueda said. “Terranea claims to be there to help you when you report, but what happens to women is they make fun of you when you report or, what’s easier, they lay you off.”

Pezqueda was honored as a silence breaker in Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 issue as part of the #MeToo movement for her courage to speak out. In May 2018, she received a $250,000 settlement. Terranea Resort was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.

The latest complaints come as fast-food workers and other low-paid employees have gone public with their struggles and cities, states and politicians including Senator Bernie Sanders are considering action to protect workers from harassment.

Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders)

We need to confront how women are treated in this country starting from the bottom on up. 66% of hotel workers and 40% of fast-food workers say they have experienced sexual harassment. https://t.co/WdBUi79fAh

October 2, 2018

Jasmin Sanchez filed a lawsuit against Terranea Resort in September 2018. The lawsuit accuses Stephen Harrington, the resort’s loss prevention manager who conducted Terranea’s internal investigation into Pezqueda’s complaints, of sexual harassment and assault.

Included in the lawsuit is a text message Harrington sent to Sanchez in August 2016 after taking her cellphone number from a staff bulletin board. “My dick keeps getting hard thinking about it, I’m gona have to beat it off again in the ballroom restroom,” the text read after Harrington told her that he watched her on the security cameras as she worked. Sanchez reported the text messages to human resources, who she claims brushed them off. A few days later, Harrington cornered Sanchez in a room and sexually assaulted her for reporting him, according to the lawsuit.

“When it happened, it gave me panic attacks. I wasn’t able to go back to work. I just left, I couldn’t stay and didn’t want to go back,” Sanchez said. Harrington also repeatedly threatened to have her car towed after she initially reported the text messages, she claimed. “I chose to speak out because my mom is a hotel housekeeper who has been sexually harassed and also because working women like me deserve respect.”

Terranea declined to comment on Sanchez’s case, but noted Harrington resigned from his position at the resort in November 2016. “These are very serious allegations that do not reflect the values or culture of Terranea,” added a Terranea Resort spokesperson. “Since we opened our doors in 2009, Terranea Resort has remained true to our commitment to value the contributions of each associate, maintain positive workplace relationships and offer a rewarding professional experience.”

The supervisor whom Pezqueda accused of sexual harassment and assault reportedly harassed and assaulted other co-workers as well. Monica Sanchez (no relation to Jasmin), a former dishwasher who worked with Pezqueda, explained that a few months into her employment at Terranea in 2014, her supervisor began sexually harassing her.

Time
Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year cover, The Silence Breakers, which featured women who have spoken out against harassment, and included Sandra Pezqueda. Photograph: Billy & Hells/AFP/Getty Images

“He propositioned me to have sex with him. He said if I go with him, I’d get a better position at work,” Monica Sanchez said. She rejected his advances, but two months later they escalated and she says her supervisor grabbed her by the waist. “I asked him what are you doing? I said please respect me, and he laughed at me. After that, I complained to his manager who told me not to pay attention to it, that he was just joking, he wasn’t being serious about what he said.”

Monica Sanchez no longer wanted to work at Terranea but said she had to keep the job out of necessity. She claims the supervisor switched her schedule from mornings to evenings in retaliation, and propositioned her again with the offer to change her schedule back. “It was like hell to work there,” Monica Sanchez added. “I experienced so much fear and humiliation at Terranea.”

She eventually quit in early 2016, but the supervisor and a friend of his who also worked at Terranea continued to harass her through the next year in texts with sexual propositions and threats not to report. She had to change her cellphone number and Facebook profile as a result.

At Terranea, supervisors and managers have not been the only perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. In sworn affidavits, three former housekeepers claim their reports to management of guests sexually harassing them, which included exposing themselves, were ignored and often viewed as joke.

“There are so many things that happen to you as a woman there, and management never listen, they never care. We are exposed to propositions, harassment, and requests from guests because we work isolated by ourselves,” said Rosa Marina Moreno Garcia, another former housekeeper, in an interview. She worked at the resort from 2009 until August 2017, when she was fired for allegedly taking breaks that were too long, the same excuse used to fire Pezqueda after she reported sexual harassment and assault from a supervisor. “I’ve had so many experiences with guests exposing themselves, completely naked.”

A Terranea Resort spokesperson denied the allegations; “We are unaware of any complaints involving our housekeepers like those you referenced,” they said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy toward unlawful harassment of any kind.”

Garcia is one of the workers in favor of providing hotel housekeepers with panic buttons to provide protection from sexual harassment and assault while working in isolated areas of the resort.

The Ranchos Palos Verdes city council pushed back a ballot initiative to 2019 for a citywide ordinance to install panic buttons for hotel housekeepers. Terri Hack, the president of the Terranea Resort since it opened in 2009, personally complained to city council members about signature gathering for the ballot initiative and expressed concerns about union activity related to the initiative. In April 2018, attorneys for the Terranea Resort formally wrote to the Ranchos Palos Verdes city attorney that the initiative “must be rejected if and when initiative ‘proponents’ file the signed petition with the city clerk’s office”.

Similar voter initiatives are on the November 2018 ballot in Long Beach and Oakland, California, where activists hope to join Chicago in enacting policies to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment. A Hands Off, Pants On ordinance was passed by the Chicago city council in October 2017. An April 2016 survey conducted by Unite Here Local 1 union in Chicago found 58% of hotel housekeepers reported experiencing sexual harassment from guests, an issue that remains rampant throughout the hotel industry.

A statewide bill was introduced in early 2018 by the California state representatives Wendy Carrillo, Bill Quirk and Al Muratsuchi, but was held up in the state senate appropriations committee where the bill is now essentially dead after getting passed in the state assembly in May 2018.

“I was very disappointed,” said Muratsuchi, the leading author of the bill, in an email to the Guardian. “This bill proposed some commonsense protections from sexual assault and harassment, such as requiring panic buttons be given to housekeepers to summon assistance in an emergency situation. I want to make sure the Me Too movement leads to safer workplaces for all women, including hotel housekeepers, many who are working-class immigrants. I intend to reintroduce this bill and keep fighting next year.”

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A bill to protect hotel workers is stuck in California’s state capitol in Sacramento. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Despite these legislative efforts and reports from several former employees, current Terranea employees claim hotel management still doesn’t take reports of sexual harassment seriously.

Shortly after Sharon Merino began working as a barista at a cafe in the resort in April 2017, a maintenance worker in his 50s began harassing her whenever she ran into him on resort property.

He found out she worked as a teaching assistant outside the resort, which prompted him to refer to her as his “beautiful teacher”, whenever he saw her, in addition to other inappropriate comments about her looks.

“The comments were getting more intense. I didn’t want to run into this person and changing the subject wasn’t working,” Merino said. “He would catch up to me on the property asking why I was hiding from him. It got to the point where I didn’t want to leave my station at the coffee shop. I didn’t know what else would happen.”

After an incidence where Diaz stared at her outside on the property while making vulgar comments about her, Merino told her manager and went to human resources in December 2017 to provide a formal statement.

“After I gave my statement, they said ‘maybe you didn’t tell him firmly enough or he thought you were playing’, but I said ‘no, I did tell him firmly enough’,” Merino added. She was told he was not allowed to work in her area any more, but she started seeing him again after a couple of months. “My manager said not to tell my dad or brother, who also work at the hotel, because I wouldn’t want to get them involved and in trouble.”

Her harasser still works as a supervisor in his department, and Merino continues to remain uncomfortable and in constant fear at work because of the harassment.

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