Laid-off food workers claim their 'right to return' to jobs was violated at Hotel Figueroa

Los Angeles, CA - March 01: Isabela Piedrahita, center, shouts "Bring them back" as she joins dozens of demonstrators participating in a "water-in" at the Cafe Fig restaurant in support of more than a hundred workers who lost their jobs when the Hotel Figueroa's owner and its new operator failed to retain the workers when the new operator took over on Friday, March 1, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Demonstrators participate in a "water-in" on March 1 at the Café Fig restaurant in the Hotel Figueroa in support of workers not retained when the new operator took over. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Two days after the food hospitality operator at a fashionable downtown hotel shuttered its restaurants and laid off its food and beverage employees, a new third-party management company moved in and hired a whole new set of workers, according to a complaint filed with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

The laid-off food and beverage laborers had attempted to unionize months earlier. They allege that Hotel Figueroa and hospitality operator the Botanical Group left them out of the hiring, potentially violating a city "right to return" law that requires that new hotel owners or new operators retain the site’s employees for a transitional period, according to the complaint.

A Feb. 21 letter addressed to the city attorney’s office asks for an investigation. A spokesperson for the office confirmed receipt of the complaint but wouldn't comment further on the matter.

“The company closed without retaining workers in violation of the recall law,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, which is aiding the hotel workers in their effort. ”It is beyond outrageous to see wealthy companies … treat their long-standing workers like they are disposable.”

Read more: Restaurant workers wanted to unionize at this L.A. hotel. Now the restaurants are closing

The hotel is denying the premise of the workers' complaint.

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for Hotel Figueroa said its ownership is “acting in accordance” with the Los Angeles Hotel Worker Retention Ordinance, which requires that new hotel owners or operators retain the site’s employees for a transitional period. The 2006 ordinance initially applied only to hotels in the LAX corridor. In 2022, a new hotel worker protection ordinance expanded the existing law to include all city hotels with more than 50 guestrooms.

The retention rule is intended to protect laid-off hotel workers so that if a hotel undergoes a change in control, the successor hotel employer is required to hire previous employees for a 90-day transition period and may not discharge these employees without cause.

Men walking out of the Hotel Figueroa with their fists in the air.
Pastor Mike Kinman, right, walks out of the Hotel Figueroa after demonstrating in support of restaurant workers who were laid off. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Hotel Figueroa spokesperson said there isn’t a new food and beverage operator in place, but that they are instead working with a “consultant to provide limited F&B [food and beverage] service.” Several former staff members of the former third-party management group returned to the hotel’s food and beverage outlets, she said, and they expect more will return in the next few weeks.

When asked how many non-managerial staff had been hired back, the spokesperson said the company wouldn’t comment further.

The Botanical Group did not respond to emails and message for comment.

The 2006 retention ordinance was drafted in response to mass firings that occurred in 2000 at a Wyndham hotel near LAX. The hotel closed and laid off more than 200 employees. The hotel reopened as the Radisson Hotel LAX about a year later but did not hire all of the former Wyndham workers, even though more than 100 of them submitted applications.

Since then, the law has been invoked a handful of times, said Maria Hernandez, a spokeswoman with Unite Here Local 11.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a bartender at the reopened Bar Magnolia said he and the other bartenders present were new to the job, as well as other non-management employees. The space once occupied by Sparrow Italia, which served coastal Italian dishes and cocktails in an indoor-meets-outdoor setting, remained closed.

A dishwasher, line cook and prep cook interviewed previously about Hotel Figueroa also said they had been laid off and not rehired by the new operator.

Rev. Edgar Rivera Colon, left, exhorts patrons to support the rehiring of more than 100 workers who lost their jobs.
Rev. Edgar Rivera Colon, left, exhorts patrons to support the rehiring of more than 100 workers who lost their jobs. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Workers sought to organize

Tension between the former hospitality group Noble 33 and its employees at Hotel Figueroa started soon after the third-party management took over food and beverage operations for the hotel in 2021, according to workers and union organizers who spoke with The Times.

Workers said they were forced to take on multiple tasks without more pay as their colleagues left and management failed to back-fill positions.

On Dec. 8, back-of-house food and beverage workers who worked for Noble 33 notified their management that they intended to form a union, and submitted cards to do so.

Six days later, hospitality operator Noble 33 announced it would close Sparrow Italia, Café Fig, Bar Magnolia, the Cafeteria and La Casita at Driftwood at the famed hotel, a historic building in downtown L.A. that for the last two decades built a following for its Mediterranean-inspired space and stylish dining rooms.

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Rev. Andrew Schwiebert, center, talks with diners as he and dozens of others participate in a "water-in" at the Café Fig.
Rev. Andrew Schwiebert, center, talks with diners as he and dozens of others participate in a "water-in" at the Café Fig. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Noble 33 followed through on the closure. On Feb. 11, the company laid off an estimated 100 non-management employees and closed the Hotel Figueroa’s restaurants.

Maria Ibarra, a cook for Noble 33 at the hotel, said she was laid off and not rehired. She now faces unemployment.

“The owners thought they could just replace us overnight and that we would give up and walk away,” Ibarra said. “My co-workers and I will not do that. We have rights.”

Wednesday, Unite Here Local 11, workers and religious leaders called for a boycott of the hotel and hospitality group, at a morning press conference in front of Hotel Figueroa.

The group also delivered a letter signed by nearly 500 people demanding that the hotel bring back the laid-off workers.

"We call on you to immediately offer to return the workers to their employment at the hotel and compensate them for time missed," the letter said.

The boycott is just the latest move taken by workers and the union.

On Friday, nearly 40 people picketed at Hotel Figueroa — seven of them hotel housekeepers alongside about 30 community members and religious leaders with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a faith-based advocacy group based near downtown. They shouted "Bring them back" and held a sign that read "Bring back the Fig 100."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.