Four Seasons ‘Furlough’ Contagion Spreads

Montecito Biltmore Employee Mediation Sparks Interest in New York Flagship

Employees of the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara protest the companies lack of communication due to Covid-19. Many employees don’t know if they still have a job. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

As Biltmore hotel employees face their 15th month of “furlough,” management company Four Seasons and owner Ty Warner held a second mediation to negotiate compensation with the workers’ attorney on Saturday. The hotel, purchased by Warner in 2000 for upward of $100 million, closed for the pandemic in March 2020. After employees held a public demonstration demanding to know if their hotel would reopen, in August the Four Seasons announced the Biltmore would undergo renovations through 2021. It then announced this year that all reservations were cancelled through 2022.

This June, the same announcement was made for Four Seasons’ flagship hotel in New York City, also owned by Warner, causing grief and heartburn, according to some members of its staff, who have similarly been furloughed since March 2020. “There is no renovation going on. It’s a ruse, a strategy, a hoax to avoid paying separation,” said one senior staff member, who requested anonymity. “Everyone has been forced to resign, retire, or drop dead,” she said, explaining that some of her colleagues were unable to buy insulin when their health insurance ended or had nowhere to live when they couldn’t pay their rent.

The New York hotel is partially unionized, and one union member said the hotel had undergone an extensive three-year renovation five years ago. They said that ordinarily, renovations occur in one part of the hotel while the remainder of the rooms stay occupied, with constant apologies to guests but a continual income stream to the company.

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It’s possible, but unlikely, that Four Seasons, a Canadian company that is owned in part by Bill Gates and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, and Biltmore owner Ty Warner, who is said to be worth $4 billion, might not need an income stream. Warner, who made his bones with Beanie Babies, just restored his San Ysidro Ranch hotel, which suffered extensive damage to the cottages and grounds, and a complete wipeout of its wine cellar, during 2018’s debris flow through Montecito. He also has permit issues to contend with; when his Montecito Club neighbor Angelo Mozilo brought suit regarding a pickleball noise complaint  — after a $75 million makeover that added a Sports Complex — the city Planning Commission followed up by giving the club 120 days to conform to requirements of the permits they’d neglected to acquire.

About 450 workers are involved in the Santa Barbara furlough, including many who have been with the Biltmore for decades. Attorney Bruce Anticouni represents more than 250 employees and contends the furlough turned into a layoff after six months had passed, according to federal labor laws. The mediation began on April 30, with the second round held July 10. Anticouni, who states as much as $6 million could be owed to employees as severance per their employment contract, said through a spokesperson that an announcement would be made July 27 on the mediation outcome.

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