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Downtown LA’s Freehand Hotel Faces Complaint From Worker Who Says He Cleaned Up Human Feces

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A complaint filed Monday claims a worker had to deal with six septic tank incidents in the hotel’s private dining room

Unite Here Local 11 protests at the Freehand Hotel
Unite Here Local 11
Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

On Monday, an employee at Downtown LA’s trendy Freehand Hotel filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA). In the complaint, Jose Santamaria details six septic tank explosions that he claims he was required to clean up without proper equipment or training. The raw sewage allegedly contained human excrement and used toilet paper and was up to five inches deep. During one cleanup effort, Santamaria says that his shoes, clothes, face, and legs came into direct contact with the liquid sewage. Santamaria says that one time the hotel hosted an event in the private dining shortly after he cleaned the room. He is asking California state officials to look into the hotel’s compliance with workplace safety regulations, including protective equipment and training for this type of work.

The Daily Beast further reports that Santamaria had to deal with the overflows into the Freehand Hotel’s private dining room with “vacuum cleaners and buckets” instead of proper equipment. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a specific guidance for workers who handle human waste or sewage, including goggles, protective face masks, liquid repellent coveralls, waterproof gloves, and rubber boots, in addition to proper training on disease prevention and hygiene.

Because of Santamaria’s allegations, labor union Unite Here Local 11 has filed a complaint with the LA County Department of Health to determine whether the hotel is in compliance with local and state laws. According to the Daily Beast article, Santamaria says he developed a rash on his toes, leg, right hand, and right elbow after his first exposure to the sewage. In the OSHA complaint, Santamaria wrote, “It is unconscionable that the hotel required us to come into skin contact with sewage containing human feces and failed to provide us with adequate medical attention and treatment. Skin contact with human fecal matter is a serious hazard to human health, especially when the contact lasts for extended periods of time.”

The Daily Beast also reports that the Freehand Hotel has allegedly been illegally retaliating against employees who are trying to unionize, including threats to review paperwork and report certain employees to ICE. The article also details a shift in management practices after the hotel’s initial opening back in late 2017, where employees were allegedly given more tasks to complete within the same time period, denied legally mandated rest breaks, and worked beyond scheduled hours without additional pay.

Eater inquired with Sydell Group via email, but the company declined to comment on the complaint. Sydell Group is the owner of the Freehand Hotel in Los Angeles, as well as New York City, Chicago, and Miami. The Freehand is a hip boutique hotel with hostel-style lodging, with Rudolph’s lobby bar and Middle Eastern-inspired The Exchange restaurant. Sydell also operates The Line and NoMad hotels in Los Angeles.

Update: A spokesperson on behalf of the hotel made the following statement:

Our employees are – and always have been – central to our success, and we will continue to ensure that they have a positive and safe work environment. Recently, the UNITE HERE! Local 11 labor union has made outrageous and false allegations against the Freehand LA and its employees, and have encouraged certain employees, often through tactics of fear and intimidation, to make similar allegations. This is part of the union’s strategy to leverage the hotel as they have far from sufficient employee support for their campaign. Despite their obvious falsehood, the Freehand LA takes these accusations extremely seriously and intend to take every legal measure to protect its employees and reputation.