The D.C. Office of Human Rights has found probable cause that the Willard InterContinental Hotel allegedly forced a gay assistant chef out of his job after he complained that he was repeatedly subjected to anti-gay harassment and taunts by co-workers and supervisors.
A 15-page Letter of Determination of Probable Cause issued by the OHR on Dec. 17 says D.C. resident Alberto Vega, 43, establishes a “prima facie case” that he was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his sexual orientation and was “constructively discharged” from his job in August 2013.
The OHR 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 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.”
OHR’s probable cause letter says 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 jokes were offensive, and supervising chefs laughed about them, compounding the impact of the ridicule.”
The probable cause letter notes that the discrimination complaint that Vega filed with the OHR alleges that the 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 the anti-gay comments in both 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 ‘culero,’ meaning ‘fag’ and ‘burro’ which means donkey indicating that homosexuals are sub-humans,” the probable cause document quotes Vega’s complaint as saying.
Other alleged comments made by Vega’s co-workers and quoted in the probable cause document include, “God punches faggots;” “If Obama wins we would have to tolerate seeing faggots getting married;” and “Real men have children; why don’t you have any?”
The probable cause letter says that since the entire kitchen staff worked together closely in a small space in the kitchen, “complainant could not escape the harassment. Complainant credibly asserts that the comments caused him significant stress and affected him personally in such that he sometimes had to leave work early or was out of work sick.”
The letter says personnel officials at the hotel, to whom Vega repeatedly reported the alleged harassment, told him they investigated his allegations and could not substantiate them.
The probable cause letter was signed by Monica Palacio, the OHR director who was appointed by former Mayor Vincent Gray and asked to stay on as director by Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Eric Janson, an attorney representing the hotel, told the Blade on Tuesday that he would have no comment on a pending case except to say that on behalf of the Willard his law firm of Seyfarth Shaw filed a motion for reconsideration of the probable cause finding.
Under procedures established by the OHR, parties charged with discrimination have the option to request a reconsideration of a finding of probable cause. If the OHR reverses its finding the case is dismissed.
If it upholds the finding after reviewing its initial decision it then certifies the case to be sent to the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, which conducts a trial-like evidentiary hearing open to the public that includes testimony by witnesses.
Under the D.C. Human Rights Act, the Commission is authorized to make a final decision over whether discrimination occurred and what, if any, penalty should be handed down to the accused party.
Also prior to certifying a case to be sent to the Commission, the OHR says it makes a final effort to persuade the complainant and accused party, referred to as the respondent, to negotiate a reconciliation agreement in which the case could be settled without the need for a hearing.
OHR spokesperson Elliot Imse said the office never acknowledges whether it is considering a case until it certifies the case for consideration by the Commission on Human Rights, regardless of whether a finding of probable cause has been made. He said no case involving the Willard Hotel had been certified as of this week so his office would have no comment.
Officials at the Willard Hotel did not respond to a request by the Washington Blade for a comment on the allegations made by Vega. But in a statement released to the Blade, a Willard spokesperson discussed the hotel’s policy on discrimination.
“The Willard InterContinental hotel holds the safety, comfort and well-being of our guests and employees as our top priority and concern, and condemns unlawful discrimination in all of its forms,” said Barbara Bahny, the hotel’s director of public relations. “At this time, the hotel is unable to comment further since the litigation is ongoing.”
The Willard is considered one of the most prestigious hotels in the nation’s capital and has a history that dates back to when Abraham Lincoln stayed there prior to being inaugurated as president in 1861.
The InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns the Willard and dozens of other hotels in the U.S. and abroad, 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 affecting LGBT employees.
“We are monitoring this case,” said Deena Fidas, director of the HRC Foundation’s Workplace Equality Program and co-author of the Corporate Equality Index after the Blade informed HRC about the case. “Whenever allegations of harassment or discrimination surface, it is distressing, and we take them very seriously.”
Fidas said HRC Foundation would continue to monitor this and other cases and “make determinations when appropriate.”
The OHR letter finding probable cause says Vega applied for at least two other food service jobs at the Willard and for a third job at a hotel in Alexandria, Va., owned by the Willard’s parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group, in an effort to leave what he believed to be the hostile work environment he faced in the job he had.
Officials told him he was deemed unqualified for one of the jobs, another reportedly had already been filled and the third was incorrectly posted as being open when it was not, according to the Willard’s version of what happened, as reported in the OHR’s probable cause letter.
Vega charges in his complaint that he was qualified for all three positions and all were open at the time he applied. He charges in his complaint that hotel officials used excuses to claim two of the jobs were no longer available.
“Respondent did not facilitate his transfer or hire into another department or location and thus there is probable cause that respondent retaliated against him for bringing internal complaints,” the OHR letter says.
The probable cause letter reports that officials at the Willard deny they fired Vega and insist he voluntarily resigned after refusing to return to work in August 2013.
“Complainant did not ‘voluntarily resign,’ the letter attributes Vega’s attorney as saying in a rebuttal to the hotel’s version of what happened.
“[H]e was terminated as he could not remain in a hostile environment,” the letter attributes Vega’s complaint as saying. “Complainant did not refuse to work; he refused to go back into the kitchen into a hostile work environment,” the probable cause letter reports the complaint as saying.
“He was then told by the HR Director that he was to turn in his key and badge and was no longer an employee of the company since he would not go back into the hostile work environment,” the letter describes the complaint as alleging.
Brian Markovitz, Vega’s attorney, told the Washington Blade in a statement that the hotel management failed to properly investigate Vega’s reports of harassment on the job that investigators at the Office of Human Rights quickly substantiated through interviewing multiple witnesses.
“Possibly the worst thing for Mr. Vega wasn’t the terrible treatment he received from the lower-level workers,” Markovitz said. “It was the Willard’s response. Management was supposed to protect Mr. Vega for bravely coming forward,” he said.
“But some managers he directly worked with laughed at and participated in the anti-gay jokes and comments,” he said. “Despite Mr. Vega’s constant pleas for help, hotel management told him again and again that what he was saying wasn’t true even though there were impartial witnesses available who could confirm the harassment.”
Added Markovitz, “For this to happen in the nation’s capital, it’s just outrageous and despicable.”
Markovitz said he was troubled that the hotel incorrectly listed Vega’s job title in its response to the complaint as a “prep cook,” which is an entry-level kitchen job. He said Vega, who has had culinary training and significant experience in the culinary field, had the title of Commis Chef, which is considered the equivalent of an assistant chef.
Since leaving his job at the Willard, Vega has been working as a culinary instructor at the city’s Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, Markovitz said.
The OHR probable cause letter says OHR investigators obtained statements from 10 Willard employees, including workers and managers, in addition to a statement from Vega, as part of its investigation. The letter says investigators also obtained at least eight internal email messages between Vega and hotel officials and between hotel managers and other employees – all pertaining to matters related to Vega’s discrimination complaint.