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Lawsuit against SLS South Beach hotel claims Haitian workers were called ‘slaves’

The SLS South Beach, located at 1701 Collins Avenue, in Miami Beach photographed in October 2012. The hotel was sued  by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for alleged discriminatory practices against black Haitian workers.
The SLS South Beach, located at 1701 Collins Avenue, in Miami Beach photographed in October 2012. The hotel was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for alleged discriminatory practices against black Haitian workers. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

“Let those slaves do the work.” That was the alleged response from a manager at the SLS South Beach hotel after a group of black Haitian workers asked management to fix a broken service elevator, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the hotel.

According to the suit, filed in U.S. district court in Miami by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a group of at least 15 Haitian workers were repeatedly discriminated against by hotel management on the basis of their race, national origin or skin color, before being fired from the hotel in 2014.

The suit claims that the workers, all of them dishwashers or stewards, were treated differently than Hispanic workers with similar duties. The suit was first reported by Will Evans from Reveal of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

A group of at least 15 Haitian workers were repeatedly discriminated against by hotel management on the basis of their race, national origin or skin color, before being fired from the hotel in 2014, according to the lawsuit.

In the case of the service elevator, the suit said that Haitian workers were forced to carry heavy items up and down the stairs of the 13-floor hotel, while Hispanic workers were not asked to perform those duties.

Haitian workers also were allegedly assigned to cleaning jobs that typically required two or three workers to complete. The workers were specifically told by managers, supervisors and chefs not to speak Creole, even to each other, while Hispanic workers were not reprimanded for speaking Spanish at work, the suit said. When the Haitian workers complained about the language practices, the hotel’s human resources department did nothing to correct the issue, according to the complaint.

Haitian workers were also subjected to disparaging names, according to the complaint, by supervisors, managers and/or chefs.

The discrimination culminated with a mass termination effort on April 9, 2014, the suit said. That day, Haitian workers who were not scheduled for duty were allegedly told the hotel needed extra staff because of a “big party” or that the kitchen was going to be “extremely busy,” the suit claims.

Instead, each was fired. The suit said the terminations were not related to performance problems and that Haitian workers were not told they could reapply for jobs with the National Service Group (NSG), a third-party contractor hired to provide new employees to replace the Haitian kitchen workers.

We do not believe we have done anything wrong and will fully defend our company against any false claims.

James L. Greeley, chief legal officer for SLS South Beach owner sbe

One Hispanic worker, Manuel Bolio, was also fired that day but was soon rehired by NSG, the suit said.

As early as that same day, April 9, 2014, new employees for NSG, dressed in blue uniforms, were already working at the hotel performing tasks previously delegated to the Haitian workers, the suit claims. A press release from the EEOC further described the new workers as “light-skinned Hispanics.”

James L. Greeley, chief legal officer for hospitality company sbe, which currently owns the 140-room SLS South Beach, said the decision to outsource staffing was made for “a number” of departments at the hotel for “economic reasons, helping to manage the wide seasonal fluctuations in the Florida market.”

“When this issue first came to our attention, we immediately conducted a thorough internal investigation and found no evidence of wrongdoing,” Greeley said in a statement. “We shared all of that information with the EEOC, and have been engaged in what we thought were cooperative and good-faith discussions about how to resolve this matter. We do not believe we have done anything wrong and will fully defend our company against any false claims.”

EEOC said the case came to its attention more than a month ago when the Haitian workers filed charges alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act. The commission found “reasonable cause to believe the discrimination alleged occurred,” the complaint said. Prior to filing the suit, EEOC representatives attempted reach a settlement with the hotel, but were unsuccessful, the EEOC said.

“In serving this community, the Miami District Office is mindful of the diverse workforce in all facets of the service, hospitality and tourism sectors and will protect workers facing discrimination in these important Florida industries,” said Michael Farrell, district director for the EEOC’s Miami District Office, in a statement.

The Haitian workers were fired on April 9, 2014, after being told to come into work because the hotel allegedly needed extra staff for a “big party” or that the kitchen was going to be “extremely busy,” the suit claims.

The EEOC is seeking damages for the workers, as well as injunctive relief that would prevent the hotel from firing workers on the basis of race, national origin or skin color and ensure the hotel provide equal employment opportunities.

SLS South Beach, at 1701 Collins Ave., in Miami Beach, was also sued last year by an employee who claimed religious discrimination when management denied his request for time off to attend a three-day spiritual retreat.

The employee, who described himself as a Christian in a legal filing, said he was told “that he was not part of a real religion and that it sounded like he was in a cult,” according to a civil complaint.

That case was sent to arbitration and remains ongoing, Miami-Dade court records show. A search of federal and state court records does not show other discrimination cases against the hotel.

Miami Herald writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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