By Rabbi Laurie Coskey
My grandmother had two seasons, each lasting half a year: Before Passover and After Passover.
For Jewish families, the festival of Passover is the biggest holiday of our year. The dinner is planned for months, with exotic dishes from the Old Country (wherever that may be) made only for the holy day. And always, the story of the Exodus is recited around the holiday table.
The story of Passover recounts the hard labor endured by the biblical slaves during the time of the tyrant King Pharaoh – who oppressed them through inhumane working conditions and retaliation for their smallest complaint – and ends with their subsequent liberation. It’s a good story.
Today, the story applies here in San Diego to employees of the Pharaoh-like hotel management company, HEI. The company’s ethic of disrespect for the mostly immigrant workforce has caused misery that extends to bodily harm:
- A restaurant server with 13 years longevity at the La Jolla Marriott was forced to work for hours without a bathroom break, resulting in a severe kidney infection. She had to be hospitalized for two days.
- A 35-year-old HiltonMissionValley housekeeper was three months pregnant and started to have abdominal pains while at work. Her request to leave early was denied. Ultimately, after the pain increased and she was finally sent home, she miscarried.
Across the country, the workers are starting to fight back. And in San Diego, more than 50 employees of two HEI hotels have filed claims and testified before the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, demanding payment for being forced to work through their state-mandated rest periods and meal breaks, as well as unpaid overtime.
Luz Olivas, a housekeeper at the Marriott La Jolla, testified earlier this month that she had reported to her Human Resources Director that she and her coworkers repeatedly worked through their breaks. Her manager responded: “Don’t tell me that,” and did nothing.
HEI is a private equity firm that owns and manages 40 hotels, 35 of them purchased since 2005. Its rapid growth has been fueled chiefly by money invested by university endowment funds. As HEI workers have spoken out about abusive labor practices and inhumane workloads, many universities including, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Brown have announced that they will stop investing in HEI.
Yet the owners of HEI, brothers Gary and Steve Mendell, have shut out faith leaders and policymakers attempting to discuss workplace conditions at their hotels. As the Executive Director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, I tried to contact the Mendell brothers, hoping they were unaware of the conditions and abuses perpetrated in their properties. The administrative assistant at their Connecticut headquarters set up a phone appointment for me, but cancelled it the next day.
In the current clamor for civil discourse, it may not be polite to call out the Mendell brothers and dress them in the Pharaoh’s tunic and headdress. However, the suffering and poverty of the women and men in their employ is egregious and cannot be ignored.
As we enter into the Holy Week for the Judeo/Christian traditions, Christians and Jews around the world will observe and recall the most sacred events around which they organize their faiths. I imagine the two Mendell brothers sitting at a table together with their families and recalling the quintessential Jewish story of oppression and liberation, listening to the youngest of their children chant the four questions in ancient Hebrew. I imagine them experiencing the transcendental moment when the story penetrates our conscience and inspires us to do better. Perhaps this Passover the message of the holiday will open the Mendell brothers’ hearts to the thousands of people they employ, who suffer because their pleas, like those of the oppressed long ago under the Pharaoh, have fallen on deaf ears.
If my grandmother could break the matzah bread with them, she would say: Sit down and listen. And don’t wait until After Passover!
Rabbi Laurie Coskey, Ed.D. is Executive Director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice of San Diego and a board member of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. She recently received national recognition from the Washington-based Center for American Progress as one of 13 faith leaders to watch in 2013.