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Union to protest sewage leaks, working conditions at Downtown’s Freehand hotel

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Protesters will wear “poop costumes,” carry plungers

The Freehand hotel is inside the former Commercial Exchange building. The old blade sign remains on the exterior.
Wonho Frank Lee

Passersby of the Freehand hotel this evening might witness an unusual sight: protestors dressed in “poop costumes” and carrying plungers.

It’s part of a scheduled action organized by union Unite Here Local 11 to highlight a complaint filed by a Freehand employee who says he has had to clean up sewage “five inches deep” while working at the property at Eighth and Olive streets.

Workers at the Freehand are in the process of unionizing with Unite Here Local 11.

In a complaint filed Monday with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Jose Santamaria claims that on multiple occasions since October 2018, a septic tank or cistern in the hotel’s basement overflowed, causing the floor of a private dining room used for special events “to become submerged in sewage water containing visible human excrement and toilet paper.”

Santamaria says he and other workers at the Freehand were made to clean up the sewage without proper training or protective gear.

“During these cleanups, I had to stand in sewage liquid up to five inches deep in my regular shoes, my feet and lower legs coming into direct contact with sewage,” Santamaria’s complaint says. On another occasion, Santamaria fashioned protective gear for himself out of trash bags, but the sewage leaked in anyway, he says.

In his complaint, Santamaria requests that the state agency investigate the hotel “as soon as possible.”

In a statement to Curbed, a hotel spokesperson says that Unite Here “has made outrageous and false allegations against the Freehand LA and its employees” and accuses the union of encouraging hotel employees to do the same.

“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,” the spokesperson says.

The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that managers retaliated against workers when they first tried to unionize. The Daily Beast also says managers have threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on employees and dismissed claims of sexual harassment.

The Freehand opened in late June 2017. The building, previously known as the Commercial Exchange, dates to the 1920s. It once housed the publishing house of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, a Hamburger department store, and the headquarters of the Owl chain of drugstores. But when it was purchased by the Sydell Group in 2014, it had sat vacant for about two decades.