Dozens of Hilton janitors are expecting to receive more than $1.1 million in unpaid wages from Hawaii Care and Cleaning, a contractor for the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Paola Rodelas, a spokeswoman for UNITE HERE Local 5, the hotel workers union, said the cleaning company and Hilton agreed to a settlement with 58 workers who claimed they were underpaid for seven years from 2007 to 2013.

The agreement hasn’t been signed by all parties, but “their attorneys are assuring us that this will get signed,” Rodelas said.

The graveyard shift janitors spent years fighting for their wages both in court and through the union grievance process, even though they weren’t union members. They argued that they should have received more money under a collective bargaining agreement between Hilton and Local 5 that said non-union workers should be paid the same as union employees.

Hilton Hawaiian Village entrance. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Hilton Hawaiian Village allegedly violated its collective bargaining agreement with a union for graveyard shift janitors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Jasmine Marbou, who moved to Hawaii from Palau as a teenager and has been working as a graveyard shift janitor since 2010, was among 35 workers who filed a lawsuit against Hawaii Care and Cleaning in December 2013 for the unpaid wages.

Judge Alan Kay ruled against the workers in April 2015. A month later, the union filed a grievance on behalf of Marbou and her colleagues.

But in June 2015, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi ruled the janitors were responsible for paying the cleaning company $97,966.45 in attorneys’ fees.

Marbou was flabbergasted by the judge’s ruling, and knew she didn’t have the money to pay the more than $2,000 she owed. But now that a settlement has been hammered out, she’s relieved and wants to use the money she expects to receive to move into a different apartment.

The grievance process has involved settlement discussions among Hilton, the cleaning company and the union, Rodelas said. Hilton has argued that the union didn’t bring the grievance in a timely manner and that any remedy would be limited, the settlement says.

Once signed, the settlement would end the grievance process before it reaches the final arbitration stage.

“Recognizing the uncertainties of arbitration, the parties entered into settlement discussions to see if the matter could be resolved without the need for arbitration,” the settlement states.

In addition to compensating the workers, the settlement would release the janitors from their obligation to pay attorneys’ fees to HCC.

Jasmine Marbou talks about the settlement in a conference room at the Local 5 office. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hawaii Care and Cleaning did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment on the settlement, and a Hilton spokeswoman declined to comment.

Marbou said she is relieved that her fight is apparently over, even though the settlement amount means she may receive less than she believes she is owed.

“We’re just happy and glad that it’s over because it’s been three years,” Marbou said. “That’s victory right there.”

Rodelas said the union is also satisfied with the outcome.

“We are happy that these workers are finally going to receive justice after many many years,” she said. She hopes that the case highlights how subcontracting can be problematic. “This issue happened with a union on property … How many other workers are getting their wages stolen from them?”

Years Of Waiting

Flordelito Basol worked at the Hilton for years before he heard that he could have been receiving more than $18 per hour, rather than about $13.

The job isn’t easy. Each workday he takes a bus from Ewa Beach to Waikiki, which takes at least an hour. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., he cleans the kitchen, removing trash and scrubbing the walls and floors. By the time hotel guests awaken to explore the beaches, Basol is embarking on the long commute home.

After he found out that he may have been missing out on thousands of dollars, he joined the lawsuit against Hawaiian Care and Cleaning along with Marbou.

Flordelito Basol wants to spend the expected settlement money he on his family, and maybe take a trip abroad. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The judge’s ruling that the janitors would have to pay attorneys’ fees was frustrating not only to the plaintiffs but also to Virgil Kodep, who works on the same overnight shift at the Hilton as Marbou. Kodep wasn’t part of the case because he was already getting paid a union wage, but encouraged Marbou to pursue the grievance against Hilton and HCC.

Kodep believes using subcontracting to pay workers less “makes people feel like they’re just a broom or dust pan.”

“(It) degrades the job standard and not just that but the people,” he said. “You don’t recognize them, that these are human beings who are making a living.”

He says that when hotels are allowed to contract jobs out instead of hiring employees directly, that makes it easier to take advantage of immigrants like him, who can be fearful and desperate for job security.

Virgil Kodep wipes away tears as he talks about the janitors. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“They can smell that,” he said of contractors. “So they can say whatever they want to you knowing you need the job.”

Kodep said he was proud when Local 5 filed a grievance against the Hilton in 2015 on behalf of Marbou and Basol. He’s proud not only of the union but of the workers who didn’t give up.

“They were willing to stand up and fight again,” he said. “And I think the real victory is what happened inside of all these workers. They can keep fighting regardless of failure.”

Hundreds Of Complaints

Marbou says she suspects she and her colleagues aren’t the only workers in Hawaii who have been underpaid. That rings true to Reyna Ramolete Hayashi, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.

Hayashi declined to comment on the Hilton case, but said underpayment is common in low-wage industries.

Subcontracting is part of a “business model to cut costs and to push responsibility for labor standards onto smaller companies that are going to be less likely to comply,” she said. “(Companies) use this model of contracting or subcontracting in order to really cut cost and to make more profit on the backs of working people.”

Earlier this year she launched the HanaHana Justice Project to help workers who experience wage theft, which ranges from not getting paid for overtime to having tips taken away.

In just a couple of months, Hayashi has received calls from workers in multiple industries ranging from construction to beauty salons.

Workers who experience wage theft can also call the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations directly or file a complaint online, said Linda Takayama, the agency’s director. But if the company disputes the complaint, resolving the issue can sometimes take years, Takayama said.

In Hawaii, less than 500 complaints regarding wage theft have been filed each year over the previous two fiscal years, according to data provided by Takayama.

From her perspective, wage theft “doesn’t seem to be a huge problem but one that is certainly in our ability to remedy.”

But a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft is costing workers nationwide hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

A 2015 survey by the National Employment Law Project found that one-fourth of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage, and more than three-fourths weren’t compensated properly for working overtime.

Hayashi thinks those national statistics are especially relevant in Hawaii given the state’s dependence on the service industry, and is hoping through the HanaHana Project to conduct outreach to learn more about what’s happening and educate workers. She noted that “when families can’t pay for basic housing or food, it affects our economy.”

“I think it’s easy to think about this as a problem that’s just facing the working poor but it’s really affecting the community,” Hayashi said.

Read the settlement document here: 

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