In the end, it was anticlimactic.
All week, Martina Robles Salazar had looked forward to this confrontation: to marching into the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Mebane surrounded by more than fifty advocates and supporters, to staring her old boss in the eye and handing him a copy of the lawsuit she and four former co-workers—all Mexican immigrants—had filed two weeks earlier, to calling him out on what they allege was his verbally abusive and disrespectful treatment.
As Kathy Diaz, a member of the immigrant advocacy organization Siembra NC, had put it a few days earlier: “This is a moment where immigrants are saying, ‘Fuck you, I’m tired of eating shit.’”
But it wasn’t, at least not like they planned. The group was there, in the lobby on Thursday evening, holding signs that read, “Stop Wage Theft.” But Devante Watkins, the hotel’s general manager, was nowhere to be found.
He’d just left, a desk clerk told them.
She called Watkins and told him that his former employees were here. A few minutes passed. He called back: “Devante Watkins just called and said he’s not gonna come,” the clerk announced.
The group groaned in unison and filed out. Robles Salazar couldn’t help but be disappointed. “I really wanted him to be there,” she said.
Sebastian Feculak, a field program coordinator with the state’s AFL-CIO, told the protesters that Watkins’s “refusal to face you—not only is it an insult, but it says they know they are wrong.”
Watkins is the target of the group’s ire, but he’s not the target of the former employees’ lawsuit. Instead, they’re accusing the hotel and its Charlotte-based owners, Joel B. Griffin and Douglas L. Stafford, of cheating them out of nearly $25,000 over a three-year period.
On Tuesday, Griffin responded to the INDY’s requests for comment with an emailed statement: “Hampton Inn Mebane is an equal opportunity employer with a diverse and inclusive culture. We strive to treat all team members fairly, honestly, and with respect. The Hampton Inn Mebane is unable to comment on the specifics of the complaint at this time.”
The alleged wage theft took several forms, according to a complaint filed in Guilford County Superior Court on May 31: The five workers say they were not given their final paychecks. Four say they weren’t paid for their outstanding vacation days. Robles Salazar says she was never given a promised bonus. Her husband, former maintenance worker Aldaberto Rios Ibarra, says he was never reimbursed for mileage. Housekeeper Olivia Vazquez Rangel says that she was sometimes paid $9 an hour when she was supposed to be paid $10.
And all five say they were shorted by a malfunctioning time clock that failed to record all of their hours—and by managers who refused to let them correct their timesheets.
Of the five plaintiffs, Robles Salazar is allegedly owed the most—$9,471.90. Rios Ibarra says he is owed $4,930.49.
“We will no longer be silent,” Robles Salazar says. “Dehumanizing people for profit—it should be shameful.”
Studies show that wage theft is a pernicious problem, depriving low-wage workers—most often women, immigrants, and people of color—of as much as $50 billion a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Just one kind of wage theft—minimum wage violations—cheated North Carolina workers out of $316 million in 2015, according to an EPI report.
Robles Salazar and Rios Ibarra migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1993. They started working at the Hampton Inn more than a decade ago.
It wasn’t glamorous or easy—she made $14.90 an hour, he made $12—but it allowed them to feed their four children, now ages three through twenty-five, and buy a three-bedroom house in Alamance County. And they never felt looked down upon.
But then, three years ago, Griffin and Stafford bought the hotel. After that, they say, everything changed; they were treated like second-class citizens. Under the hotel’s new managers, they weren’t allowed to eat in the hotel’s public area when they took breaks and were prohibited from staying at the hotel on snow days. And Robles Salazar and other female housekeepers say Watkins yelled and cursed at them in private.
What’s more, Robles Salazar says, working at the hotel took a physical toll. She’s scheduled to have surgery on both of her hands in the next month, she says, due to what her doctor calls repetitive stress injuries suffered on the job.
“This company was obsessed with the bottom line at the expense of how we were treated,” she says. “We suffered physically. I will never get back my health.”
According to the lawsuit, Robles Salazar was forced to work overtime without being paid time-and-a-half, and she and her fellow workers were denied vacation requests. They complained but didn’t find sympathetic ears among the hotel’s management.
In November, Rios Ibarra was terminated, the lawsuit says. (He says he walked off.) In April, Robles Salazar and three other housekeepers quit in protest of their alleged mistreatment. Then, a month later, they sued, seeking nearly $50,000 in unpaid wages and damages.
Watkins returned to the Hampton Inn about an hour after the demonstrators left Thursday night. Tears welled in his eyes when he was asked about the allegations that he verbally abused and mistreated his former employees.
“My owners won’t let me comment on anything,” he responded. “I must say, I love everybody and will give them the shirt off my back.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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