A Unite Here! protest outside the Grand Hyatt last year
When you hear there's a 22 percent "service charge" added to your bill, you assume it's a tip, right?
Local organizers with Unite Here! contend downtown's Grand Hyatt has long been misleading guests and skimping workers, pocketing the 22 percent "service charge" for dinners and events rather than giving it back to workers. Wednesday night at downtown's Travis Park United Methodist Church, Unite Here! held a forum with downtown service workers, clergy, and local leaders to discuss the group's proposed Tip Integrity Act. "Mi TIA," as the group calls it, would force the Hyatt to disclose to customers whether its "service charge" actually goes to workers or gets kicked back to management.
Dylan Daney, a banquet server at the Grand Hyatt and a Unite Here! organizer, says the 22 percent "service charge" has continued to frustrate workers at the hotel. He claims management even told him to lie to customers when they ask if the service charge is a tip for the workers. "To add insult to injury, they want us to deceive guests," Daney said. "I know of no other Hyatt in the country that practices this."
Tom Johnson, a banquet server at the Grand Hyatt, brought contracts between customers and hotel event planners to Wednesday night's meeting. Each contract page lists the 22 percent service charge on food and drink. On some of the contracts, hotel managers specifically wrote that hotel bartenders were barred from putting out a tip jar.
"My concern," Johnson said, "is that going back 25, 30 years, service charge always meant a tip. They're eroding that practice. And they're doing it quietly. They forbid us from telling the customers."
But Daney says the Mi TIA campaign is about more than just the 22 percent charge. Daney and Unite Here! hope to shed light on what they claim are shady tipping practices across the River Walk hotels, saying the problem spreads to kitchen staff, bartenders and housekeepers. Through a translator, Grand Hyatt housekeeper Maria Soto charged managers routinely pocket some or all of the tips left for workers who clean the rooms.
A Hyatt rep didn't return calls for comment. In the past, the hotel has said the service charge is used to offset associates' wages and benefits, as well as "other expenses associates with hosting large events." The hotel insists its employees are well compensated.
Some of Wednesday night's panel members offered heated remarks after hearing stories from hotel workers. "This is a consistent pattern of simply exploiting workers, this is shameful," said Roger Barnes, a sociology professor at University of the Incarnate Word. Local district court Judge Ron Rangel, commenting on the 22 percent "service charge," went further. "It's essentially stolen," he said. "I think it's theft."
To carry a Tip Integrity ordinance at City Hall, Unite Here! organizers have looked to downtown Councilman Diego Bernal, who sat through much of the forum Wednesday night. Bernal, who got heavy backing from Unite Here! and downtown hotel workers during his 2011 council run, has largely supported the group's efforts, but has yet to commit to drafting and proposing a Tip Integrity ordinance at City Hall.
"At its core, this is not really a minimum wage issue, a living wage issue or a pay equity issue," Bernal said. "It's really a transparency and full-disclosure issue."
The Grand Hyatt, which the late Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra called "the mother of all hotel giveaways," was not only given tax abatements but was city-financed and built on prime city-owned land. We asked Bernal if the city shoulders any responsibility in ensuring Grand Hyatt workers are treated fairly. The "service charge" problem presented by Unite Here! isn't necessarily a legal issue, he cautioned. "But it's certainly an ethical and moral issue." -- Michael Barajas