The stakes are high for employed and employer in the mediation to work out a deal for the people terminated, by law, from their jobs at the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito. As well, the attorney for the employees, Bruce Anticouni, has involved property owner Ty Warner on the theory that he controls the working conditions for employer Four Seasons. Not only is mediator Jeffrey Krivis charging $16,000 per day for the negotiation that could come to involve 450 employees, but severance pay in the tens of thousands of dollars may be owed to individual employees who have devoted decades of their working lives to the resort and never resigned their post after the pandemic shut down tourism across California in March 2020.
Which isn’t to say resignation hasn’t been part of their lives this past year. The resort was a good place to work. It paid higher wages than most hotels and offered full health-care benefits, even a 401k retirement program. Employees stayed for continuous years, polishing their presence and presentation for guests to match high Four Seasons expectations and room rates.
“Your identity gets tied up in these roles. We work very hard in this business, 12 to 14 hours a day, weekends, giving up time with family. It’s all in,” said a onetime senior executive at the Biltmore, who asked not to be identified for this story. She is one of those people with decades of experience gained at the 22-acre resort on Channel Drive and the Pacific Ocean, and she has remained close with her team and other employees during the furlough.
“We were all great at what we did,” she said. “We all believed we were at the top of our game. Losing that identity was a bitter pill to swallow.” And in the middle of the pandemic, they lost their health care, too, in June.
“Mental health has been a big issue,” she acknowledged. The anxiety of not knowing if their jobs would come back had depressed some employees to the point that they spoke openly of taking their own lives. It was particularly hard when Four Seasons promised early on that the Biltmore would reopen and that they had every intention to bring all employees back. Then rumors would swirl that maybe the Coral Casino would open or that the San Ysidro Ranch — Ty Warner’s other hotel property in Montecito — was open and maybe they were next.
Unemployment benefits, even with the federal subsidy, were nowhere near what they once earned, the former executive said. She and her partner had to move in with family because they couldn’t pay their rent. Some people gave up and moved on to other jobs far below their skill and experience — becoming childcare workers or shoppers for grocery store customers, for instance, when they once handled millions of dollars’ worth of banquet demands.
Four Seasons required employees to sign a pact, which included a severance package should they be laid off through no fault of their own. For workers who’d staffed the hotel for over 15 years, the severance could amount to $20,000, and additional years added more compensation, she said. Some people had quit, some in anger and disbelief at the silence coming from their employer over their future, she said, but the mediation is representing around 300 of the Biltmore’s 450 employees.
The mediation could go into the evening, said Anticouni, but all at the virtual table are supposed to have the authority to make decisions. Employees had written attestations for the mediator to explain the emotional rollercoaster they’d been through over the past year, but he said they would likely remain anonymous as many held on to the hope that they’d be rehired when the resort reopens.
That could be several years from now, as all reservations were canceled for 2022 and property owner Warner has indicated he is considering retrofitting the buildings, which date to 1929, with “state-of-the-art decontamination technologies to eliminate flu/virus exposure.” That was back in August when the scale of the pandemic was just beginning to tilt upward steeply in Santa Barbara. Since then, coronavirus conditions in California have abated — though for how long is an open question — restaurants are at half capacity indoors, and hotels, including San Ysidro Ranch, are open again.
What that means for the Biltmore is a question that has yet to be answered. Questions and requests for comment to Warner’s representatives and the Four Seasons in advance of the mediation were not returned.