Sidelined from their jobs at Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito for going on 17 months, more than 300 employees will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to accept a steep discount on the severance they are owed or sue the hotel group and landlord Ty Warner.
Biltmore employees stay on the job for decades, becoming immersed in the culture of high-quality service the hotel is known for. When the pandemic struck and hotels closed around California, they were told they were being furloughed. Then their health insurance was canceled. Their attorney, Bruce Anticouni, stated “careers were destroyed and their livelihoods were lost,” homes were lost, and chronic conditions went without medications. “One Four Seasons employee, unable to care for his extended family, is said to have committed suicide,” Anticouni alleged.
Two mediation sessions, in April and July, led to Warner offering 10 cents on the dollar, on what Anticouni says adds up to more than $6.5 million in severance owed to the employees. Four Seasons, which has a contract with Warner to run the hotel that also makes him responsible for severance payments, never made the offer negotiators said they were considering, said Anticouni. They did say that if their employees accept Warner’s offer, they would lose their seniority. One individual had worked there for more than 50 years, Anticouni said, over a dozen for more than 40 years, and dozens of others for more than 25 years. While some employees have relocated to other Four Seasons hotels, many have taken lesser-paying jobs without benefits in Santa Barbara.
The employees’ attorney stated the Four Seasons in Boston had used similar tactics after pandemic layoffs in May 2020. The Boston hotel reopened in June but tried to pay less severance to the employees, sparking a backlash from city unions, politicians, and guests, according to the Boston Globe. CEO John Davison ended up apologizing and stating, “We have a duty to honor — with respect and professionalism — our people and their long-standing service and loyalty to the hotel.”
Should the employees vote to sue, Anticouni said, California law states a layoff of more than one pay period is equivalent to termination. Federal law says termination occurs six months after a layoff. Anticouni intends to seek lost vacation pay and damages from the loss of health benefits while presumably on furlough status. He also pointed to Warner’s San Ysidro Ranch, which did not close during the pandemic. Sources in Montecito have made a few interpretations of Warner’s actions at the Biltmore, which he has owned since 2000, including a desire to get rid of Four Seasons as the managing hotelier or perhaps to gain some kind of tax benefit. Anticouni noted that while the Four Seasons employee contract has a clause regarding class action suits — and he expected them to fight it — Warner has no such protection. “We think we’ll prevail,” Anticouni said, “and if the court allows it, that’s over 300 people.”