The Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel in Columbia received a total renovation after the COVID-19 pandemic closed its doors in April 2020. From new furnishings to a rooftop pool, the hotel was upgraded to become Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, a luxury hotel in Marriott’s Autograph Collection that is scheduled to welcome its first guests this month.
With the upgrade, however, a new staff is also required to meet the “brand,” according to Eliana Antonsen, a former banquet server who was laid off by the hotel last year and has not been recalled back to work even though the hotel has hosted a few events, including the Howard County Chamber of Commerce breakfast in October and an opening introduction Friday.
“Even while we were working there, I heard it through the grapevine that the staff was ‘not the brand,’ ” said Antonsen, who worked at the hotel for more than 20 years. “I am someone who knows the job, is knowledgeable, on time, gets good comments. It’s just crazy. What is the ‘brand’ they are looking for?”
More than 100 employees, including housekeepers, banquet workers and cooks, many of whom are members of Unite Here Local 7, a labor union representing workers in Baltimore’s hospitality industry, were laid off when the hotel closed. None were recalled back to their positions for the reopening, according to Tracy Lingo, staff director for the union.
Recall rights were part of the union members’ contracts, but those contracts expired during the 18 months when the hotel was closed due to the pandemic, Lingo said. There are no legal obligations by the owner or the hotel management company, Texas-based Aimbridge Hospitality, to rehire them.
“We are disappointed by the attacks that have been levied against the hotel and its management/ownership. As is the case in most disputes, there are two sides to the story and we are hopeful that moving forward both parties will handle the issues at hand in an honest and straightforward way,” David Costello, owner of Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, wrote in an email. “This has always been, and will continue to be, the hotel ownership’s commitment.”
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The union wants Costello to “do the right thing,” Lingo said, and allow the workers to return to their former jobs. A protest was planned for Friday night’s opening, with employees dressed in their uniforms to demand their jobs back, she said.
Antonsen loved her job and would go back to it, but she doesn’t want to as a new employee “starting at the bottom.”
“I can’t believe he doesn’t call us back,” Antonsen said. “It’s just crazy.”
The union also wants to know what happened to the two U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans the company received, a total of $2.5 million, for the purpose of helping with payroll and preserving jobs.
“They didn’t pay workers,” Lingo said. “What did they do with it?”
A pledge was organized by the union asking people to boycott the hotel until all laid-off workers who wish to return to their positions were allowed to do so. Fifty-eight elected officials, including state Dels. Terri Hill, Jessica Feldmark and Jen Terrasa, U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, and Howard County Council members Christine Rigby and Liz Walsh, have all taken the pledge so far.
“We are very happy to have all of their support,” Lingo said. “For politicians to take a stand and not got to the hotel … speaks volumes.”