The D.C. Office of Human Rights on Wednesday denied a request by the Willard InterContinental Hotel that it reverse an earlier finding of probable cause that the hotel illegally forced a gay assistant chef out of his job.
In a Dec. 17 finding of probable cause, the OHR said D.C. resident Alberto Vega, 43, established a “prima facie case” in a complaint that he was subjected to a hostile work environment at the Willard because of his sexual orientation and was “constructively discharged” from his job in August 2013.
The December finding says the hotel’s alleged actions against Vega violated the D.C. Human Rights Act, which, among other things, bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Willard is considered one of the most prestigious hotels in Washington and has a history that dates back to when Abraham Lincoln stayed there prior to being sworn in as president in 1861.
An attorney representing the Willard responded in January by filing a motion for reconsideration, contesting the probable cause finding on technical grounds.
In a three-page ruling issued on March 11, OHR Director Monica Palacio said the Willard failed to meet the criteria required under law to obtain a reversal of a probable cause finding.
Palacio said in her ruling that the criteria include discovery of new evidence not available during OHR’s initial investigation of a complaint, proof of misstatement of facts in the complaint, or the “misapplication of the law” in its finding of probable cause.
“The OHR affirms its finding on all claims,” Palacio said in her ruling.
Under OHR procedures, the Willard has 10 days from the time of the March 11 ruling to decide whether to enter into conciliation negotiations with Vega to reach a possible settlement in the case. Vega’s attorney, Brian Markovitz, has said Vega is open to entering discussions for a possible settlement.
If the Willard declines to enter conciliation discussions within the 10-day deadline, the case is automatically sent to the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, which is authorized to conduct a trial-like public hearing that includes testimony by witnesses. Under the Human Rights Act, the commission is empowered to make a final ruling on whether discrimination occurred and what, if any, penalty should be imposed on the party accused of discrimination.
Eric Janson, the attorney representing the Willard, didn’t respond to a phone call and email from the Washington Blade this week seeking comment on the OHR ruling and asking whether the Willard would consider the conciliation option.
In its 15-page finding of probable cause, OHR said its investigation into Vega’s complaint found that he was “harassed on a frequent, nearly daily basis by multiple members of the kitchen staff. The [anti-gay] jokes were offensive, and supervising chefs laughed about them, compounding the impact of the ridicule.”
In his complaint, Vega says the anti-gay harassment began around September 2012, about six months after he began his job at the Willard in March of 2012. It says fellow kitchen workers made anti-gay comments directed toward him in English and Spanish. Vega is a native of Puerto Rico and speaks fluent Spanish and English.
“Some of the Spanish speaking staff constantly called the complainant a ‘colero,’ meaning ‘fag” and ‘burro’ which means donkey indicating that homosexuals are sub-humans,” the probable cause document quotes Vega’s complaint as saying.
The English speaking staff also repeatedly hurled anti-gay slurs at Vega, his complaint says.
The probable cause document says Vega repeatedly appealed to supervisors and the hotel’s personnel officials for help in responding to the harassment and sought on at least three occasions to be transferred to other jobs to leave the hostile work environment he faced each day.
According to the probable cause finding, Willard officials claimed Vega was not qualified for one of the jobs he sought and two others were either filled or no longer open, assertions that the OHR said were found to be false.
The document says the Willard allegedly “constructively discharged” Vega after he told his supervisors he could no longer work in such a hostile environment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines a constructive discharge as an illegal form of forced resignation brought about by “making the work environment so intolerable a reasonable person would not be able to stay.”
“I hope that the hotel will finally admit what happened and take the proper steps to make amends,” Markovitz, Vega’s attorney, told the Blade. “But frankly given their prior actions, I’m not overly optimistic,” he said. “They seem hell bent on denying the harassment took place, despite repeated findings against them.”
The InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns the Willard and other hotels in the U.S. and abroad, last year received a perfect score of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates Fortune 500 companies on their personnel policies pertaining to LGBT employees.
HRC Foundation official Deena Fidas told the Blade in January that the foundation was monitoring Vega’s discrimination case and would make a determination “when appropriate” on whether to change its rating of the hotel chain.