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Union launches campaign against Columbia hotel over rehiring workers

Standing in support of members of Unite Here Local 7, a member of the Howard County Education Association, the county’s teacher’s union, holds a cardboard sign criticizing the hotel’s owner. (The Daily Record/Johanna Alonso)

Unite Here Local 7, a union that represents Maryland’s hotel, gaming and food service workers, is calling for people and organizations to boycott the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, a hotel in Columbia, over allegations that it refuses to commit to rehiring laid-off workers.

The hotel, which used to be the Sheraton Columbia, laid off 111 workers, including over 80 unionized employees, at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the union said. It has been closed since then due to renovations, and plans to reopen as part of Marriott International’s “Autograph Collection.”

Now, as its grand reopening approaches, the union says the owner, IMH Columbia, LLC, an LLC of local developer David Costello, has not agreed to recall workers laid off in 2020. Instead, those workers have been told they can reapply to their old positions.

Both Unite Here Local 7’s contract with the hotel and the recall rights included within that contract, which would have required the company to rehire laid-off workers, expired earlier this year, according to Paul D. Burgin, a lawyer with Baltimore law firm Shawe Rosenthal LLP who is representing IMH Columbia, LLC.

Every other union hotel in the area worked with the union to renew their contracts and extend recall rights for workers, said Tracy Lingo, staff director for Unite Here Local 7.

Union hotels in Baltimore are covered by a city law, passed in 2020, that required them to recall even nonunion workers laid off during COVID-19. However, even union hotels not covered by that law chose to work with the union to extend their former employees’ recall rights, Lingo said.

“(They) voluntarily negotiated with us,” she recalled. “People have been very good about, ‘this is a public health crisis that we’re all in together. Let’s be reasonable to each other.’ And so, everybody did that except Costello. He refused to.”

According to Michael Hayes, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who specializes in labor law, the decision not to commit to rehiring laid-off workers could be considered unfair labor practice, if the hotel is “using this as an opportunity to get rid of union-represented employees,” he said.

In an emailed statement, Burgin stated that “at this time, the (Merriweather Lakehouse) Hotel is not open, nor has it hired any hourly employees associated with hotel operations. All former employees are welcome to apply for open positions, and the Hotel will consider all candidates on a non-discriminatory basis based on their qualifications.”

He did not immediately respond to a question asking why the hotel did not choose to renew its union contract

Lingo said the union has made substantive efforts to come to an agreement with the hotel, even participating in meetings with both Costello and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. Despite this, she said, no progress has been made since Unite Here Local 7 first raised the issue.

“When we were made aware of the dispute at the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel in August, we were informed that the parties had not engaged in any dialogue. We worked to bring the parties together and begin discussions on finding an amicable solution that benefits both the hotel and labor,” Ball said in an email to The Daily Record. “While this issue remains a private matter, we have continued to monitor the situation and remain willing to assist in finding a resolution in any way that the parties believe is beneficial.”

Now, the union is calling for individuals and groups in the community to stop patronizing the hotel until it begins hiring back former employees. The union announced the campaign during a rally on Wednesday morning in front of Little Patuxant Place, a multi-use complex that is owned by Costello, as a sudden onslaught of rain forced protestors under the umbrellas on a nearby restaurant’s patio.

Several organizations that had used the hotel in the past, including the Maryland NAACP and several local unions, have declared their support and pledged to participate in the boycott.

Three local politicians, Howard County Councilmembers Christiana Rigby and Liz Walsh and Maryland Del. Jennifer Terrasa, D-Howard, also pledged their support.

“The employees at the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel have given years of their lives to this workplace. Some of them have spent their whole career working here. These employees care deeply about their jobs, and they care about their community,” Rigby said. “It is our human responsibility to treat workers with dignity and respect, and until these workers are treated with the dignity that they are due, we should not give this hotel our business.”

The union also criticized the hotel for receiving Paycheck Protection Plan loans, which were designed to help business owners retain their workforces amid COVID-19.

IMH Columbia, LLC, received just above $1 million in the first round of funding and just under $1.5 million in the second through Olney-based Sandy Spring Bank. IMH reported to the SBA that it would retain 120 jobs, according to a directory of PPP recipients drawn from U.S. Treasury data.

The union is calling on Sandy Spring Bank and the Small Business Administration to investigate how these funds were spent, whether the loans were forgiven, and, if so, whether the company qualified for loan forgiveness.

Burgin did not immediately respond to a question asking how IMH Columbia, LLC, spent its PPP funds.

Following the rally, workers and supporters marched to the nearby hotel, chanting “no justice, no peace.” Many held signs that read: “This hotel has no contract with UNITE HERE Local 7.”

One former employee of the hotel present at the rally, Victoria Jordan, had only been a housekeeper at the former Sheraton for about a year before being laid off during the pandemic. But, she said, she was an especially hard worker and was even given an award for the quality of her performance.

She was one of 13 housekeepers laid off in March 2020 who subsequently decided to reapply when the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel posted job listings for housekeepers; only five of them, including Jordan, were subsequently brought in for interviews.

Jordan hasn’t heard back from the hotel since then, but she’s holding out hope that she’ll get the job.

“I was just happy to be there,” she said. “I’m ready to get back in there.”