Former Ritz-Carlton employees protest as federal lawsuit awaits court decision
A large group of former employees of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Spa & Casino in Isla Verde staged a protest in front of the property that they claim fired them unjustly about six months after Hurricane María slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Holding up signs saying, “You’re fired,” and “Despido injustificado,” the group represented the estimated 170 former employees that filed a civil lawsuit against Luxury Hotels International of Puerto Rico, which does business as Ritz-Carlton Hotel Spa & Casino, claiming that the company allegedly violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988, among other breaches, when they were dismissed, News is my Business confirmed.
The plaintiffs are asking for severance pay and damages for emotional distress, according to the lawsuit.
“In October 2017 they called us in for an assembly and told us we would continue working, calling in employees for some of the recovery work to be able to reopen as quickly as possible,” said Rolando López, who spoke for the more than 20 former Ritz-Carlton workers who protested in front of the property in Isla Verde.
However, in March 2018, some 584 people were notified that they would be terminated effective April 2018, when Luxury Hotels International of Puerto Rico said that the property remained closed due to damages sustained from Hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017, with “no reopening date in sight.”
The former employees filed their lawsuit in August 2018 at the Carolina Superior Court, but the following month it was moved to the US District Court for Puerto Rico and was assigned to Judge Pedro A. Delgado-Hernández.
Essentially, the plaintiffs are asking for severance pay for the years they worked there prior to being terminated, said López, who worked at the hotel casino for 15 years.
“We want wage justice. To be paid what we’re owed. After the hurricane we were told that the property would reopen and six months later, we received our termination notices,” said López. “The hotel has not been able to provide a list of the damages they said happened.”
In their claim, the group is seeking benefits they had earned under Act 80, before it was amended by the Ricardo Rosselló administration. The court will determine what that amount will be for each of the plaintiffs if it decides in their favor, López said.
Many of the people who lost their jobs transferred to other properties under the Marriott International umbrella, which runs the Ritz-Carlton. Others moved off island, and another group decided not to opt-in to the lawsuit, News is my Business confirmed.
“We were fooled like children. This was something that had been rumored for a while. We had already heard comments that they were waiting for any opportunity to fire all of us and hire people under contract, who would not have the benefits that we had earned,” said Guillermo de la Cruz, who had been with the hotel for 20 years and calculated that he is owed roughly $200,000 in severance pay.
The court docket shows that the last move on the case was in September 2021. Judge Delgado-Hernández is expected to decide on a motion for summary judgment that Luxury Hotels International of Puerto Rico filed stating that the former employees provided no evidence of the claims in their petition.
“Plaintiffs now claim that their employment terminations — from a hotel closed indefinitely following two damaging hurricanes — were: (1) without just cause in violation of Act No. 80; (2) because of their age in violation of Act No. 100; (3) implemented to replace then with new employees eligible for cheaper benefits in violation of Act No. 4; and (4) without proper notice in violation of the WARN Act. All of Plaintiffs’ claims fail. Plaintiffs’ offer no evidence to support their claims,” the hotel states in its motion filed in April 2021.
“Plaintiffs’ employment loss was the result of a tragic event that affected all Puerto Rico residents, one way or the other. There were no ill-intentions, conspiracies, or orchestrated schemes to terminate the employment of approximately 700 individuals. As such, plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed as a matter of law,” Luxury Hotels International of Puerto Rico stated in its motion, which has been followed by dozens more filed during the latter half of 2021, the docket shows.
Earlier this month, this media outlet asked for an interview with José Gonzalez-Espinosa, general manager of the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and area general manager for Marriott’s portfolio in Puerto Rico.
However, he was unavailable and, in his place, Melissa Peña, director of public relations for Marriott International Caribbean & Latin America, said, “this year the renovation of the property is in full swing, and it is estimated that it will reopen by the end of 2023.”
“Regarding the issue of the employees, because it is a legal matter between the owners on the part of Marriott, we don’t have updated information,” she said.
In September 2020, News is my Business interviewed Gonzalez-Espinosa, who said at the time that the property was is set to reopen in mid-2022, following the completion of a multi-million dollar renovation.