Lodging a complaint

Suppose a hotel housekeeper spends the first five hours of her day cleaning bathrooms, then takes a few-hour break, later returning for another five hours as a front desk clerk in the evening. That's a 10-hour day, right? Eight hours at straight time and two hours at time and a half.

But sometimes, hotels use a different calculation.

Alfonso Gristina, head of the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour district office in Wilkes Barre, is leading a federal investigation into hotel wage practices in Pennsylvania.  And one wage practice that hurts workers is when hotels pay workers separately for each function, he said. They may issue two separate checks on a straight time basis. No OT.

Sometimes the hotel company will set up a separate cleaning company to handle room servicing or sometimes it will hire a completely unrelated company to do the job. The possible problem arises when the employee works for both and the total tops eight hours. Whether the situation is legal or whether it constitutes wage theft depends on how far apart the two companies are. You can read more about Gristina's efforts in my story in the Philadelphia Inquirer along with my Sunday story on wage theft in different sectors. Click here to read the Labor Department's press release announcing the investigation.

What confuses employers the most, said hotelier James Purdum, chairman of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Lodging and Tourism Association, is whether to classify employees as non-exempt (meaning they should get overtime) and exempt. That's particularly the case when sales are a part of the employees' duties. This confusion shows up often for banquet managers or event planners. 

Purdum doesn't think that most multiple-property owners deliberately try to cheat employees out of wages. "There is too much at stake," he said.