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Omni Contract Ratified, Protects Immigrants
by Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez | May 25, 2012 7:17 am
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Immigrants
Maria Ramirez was pleased when her union won higher wages in a new contract at the Omni Hotel—and happier about new protections for immigrant workers like herself.
Ramirez (pictured at her Fair Haven home) and her fellow workers voted 47 to 2 Thursday to ratify a new three-year contract at the downtown hotel. Half of the 100 Omni workers with membership in UniteHere Local 217 participated in the vote, which took place in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms.
The new contract includes $1.50-an-hour wage hikes over three years for non-tipped workers, 75 cents per hour over the same period for tipped workers. It also includes better health insurance and extra pay whenever an employee brings a refrigerator to a room ($1.50) or cleans after a guest’s pet ($7.50).
“I love the new contract,” said Tracey Massey (pictured), who has worked at the Omni as housekeeper for a year and half. “I’m proud of all the good work we did for it. I started at $11.15. Now I’m at $13.65, all because of the union and the management.”
Workers and organizers agreed that the biggest improvement in the new contract involves “human rights” provisions that protect especially vulnerable immigrant workers.
The contract specifies that the hotel will not require employees to verify their immigration status once they have been hired, and that it will refrain from the use of “voluntary work authorization programs” such as E-verify “unless required by the law.”
The contract also states that the hotel “will not discriminate” against employees who receive a “no-match” letter from the federal Social Security Administration—a simple clerical procedure, unrelated to immigration, that has in the past been used to target undocumented workers.
“The most important part is the human rights language,” said aide Amy Kane (pictured), who has worked at the Omni’s mini-bar and phone-operating services for nine years. “It will protect our employees.”
Omni General Manager Josh Heidenreich called the contract “a win-win for both parties. It just goes on and proves over the last 14 years the associates at the Omni have done a stellar job with the customer service taking care of the out-of-town guests who come in to New Haven.”
The Dreaded Letter
The Social Security Administration sends “no-match” letters when an employee’s name, as provided by his or her employer on tax documents, does not match the number that the SSA has in its files for that person.
Such mismatches are common and have many causes: a single typo on the nine-digit number, a misspelled last name, the lack of a social security number, and in some cases the use of a fake number. People with all kinds of immigration statuses—including citizens and those here without documents—receive these letters every day. (This reporter, a Mexican citizen living legally in America on a student visa, has gotten one.)
Yet some undocumented workers see these letters as the stuff of nightmares. They are convinced that receiving one of them means that their immigration status has been discovered, and that they will be persecuted. Many of them prefer to quit their jobs rather than face the uncertainties of an immigration audit. They believe that going to the SSA office will result in their arrest.
Given the many different reasons for which their are issued, a non-match letter does not say anything about a person’s immigration status. The undocumented immigrant’s fears are unfounded—unless their employers decide to target them.
Fatima Rojas (pictured), an organizer with Local 217, explained that some of the Omni’s policies did just that.
“People [who had received these letters] were told that they had to go to the SSA office and come back with proof that they had fixed the problem,” she said in Spanish. “The law only states that the employer has to notify the worker that they have received the letter. It does not say that the employer needs to ask the worker to come back with proof that they have contacted the SSA.”
She said that employers sometimes wrongly believe that the reception of a no-match letter implies that their employees are not authorized to work. In the best-case scenario, the mistake results in a benevolent attempt to correct the situation, which backfires when undocumented employees panic and do not return to their jobs. In the worst-case scenario, it opens a door for downright discrimination.
By merely informing employees of the reception of the letter, Rojas said, the employer fulfills its legal obligations without putting unfair pressures on workers it has already determined to be suited for the job.
“When an employee gets hired, there is a selection process in which the employer goes through the employee’s documents,” she argued. “Why, after they have hired them, does the employer need to keep asking for information? Are they going to review all of the workers, or just some of them? And how are they going to decide who to review?”
Besides stipulating that the hotel will do only what is required by law when it receives a no-match letter, the contract specifies that the “employer shall not re-verify unexpired work authorization documents which are facially valid.”
Rojas made it clear that the union is not encouraging the hotel to break the law. The contract explicitly states that “the Employer shall permit inspection of I-9 forms where a Department of Homeland security search and/or arrest warrant or other legal process signed by a federal judge specifically names employees or requires the production of I-9 forms.”
“We wanted to make sure that the law was respected,” she said, “but not abused. We just want to make it clear that, legally, Social Security has nothing to do with immigration.”
“They felt strongly about” the immigration clauses, Heidenreich noted. “We felt strongly about taking care of associates within the guidelines of the law.”
The Self-Educated Leader
Maria Ramirez hails from San Felipe del Progreso, a small town in central Mexico. She did not go to school; she taught herself to read and write. Before coming to the Omni six years ago, she worked as a housekeeping position at a nearby Holiday Inn. She said that, since workers in that hotel were not unionized, the conditions were poor.
“We didn’t have vacations. We didn’t have health insurance,” she said in an interview, conducted in Spanish, outside her Fair Haven home. “When someone was disrespectful, you either shut your mouth or lost your job. And there was this horrible manager there. She was Hispanic too, a Peruvian woman. She was too demanding. She was mean to us. But we couldn’t complain.”
When Ramirez moved to the Omni she got better wages and a complaint system to formally address abuses—but not everything was perfect. She had been there for five years when several of her co-workers received no-match letters. She had never been involved with a union. After that incident she decided she had to do something.
“Before, I didn’t give importance to problems, but then five of my friends had to leave their jobs,” she said. “I’m a single mother, making plans for the future. Tell me, if you lose your job, what do you do?”
Ramirez became involved with Local 217. She emerged as a natural leader.
“I tell some of my co-workers about how the union can protect our rights, and then they tell more people,” she said. “The more there are of us, the better we can defend ourselves.”
When asked about the future, Ramirez said that she hopes that the union will keep growing and attracting new members.
“It really makes a big difference,” she said. “The union defends our rights. It’s important that people realize that.”
Workers and organizers praised the Omni administrators with whom they bargained.
“There is a group of enlightened managers high up in the company,” said Warren Heyman, a UniteHere organizer who serves as secretary-treasurer for Local 217. “They are good to work with.”
“The old management wasn’t very involved in what actually went down at the hotel,” said Kane. “The new management is a lot better.”
“There’s this new guy, Robbie Nasser. He just came in three weeks ago,” said Theresa Ashe (pictured), who has worked for the Omni as a housekeeper for nine years. “People really like him. He comes to the floors and makes you feel like you don’t just work for him, but are part of something.”
Rojas expressed that it is precisely attitudes like Nasser’s that made the new contract possible.
“I applaud the Omni’s altitude,” she said.
“They are kind to us,” she said simply. From the tone of her voice it was evident that she had seen otherwise, and that she meant it.
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