The employees say they’re now talking to an attorney with the intention of filing a group lawsuit against the company. They say they deserve severance pay, per the terms of their employment agreements.
No one from the hotel returned Noozhawk’s calls this week. An operator who answered the telephone said she delivered the messages to management.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the hotel a year ago, most other hotels have reopened, and there are currently no restrictions against the hotel industry reopening.
The Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, at 1260 Channel Drive and owned by hotelier Ty Warner, has a storied reputation as a five-star beachside hotel.
Employees said they were told in a conference call in March that the hotel is closed “until further notice” and that bookings and events were frozen through 2022. The news came as a shocking surprise because in November they were told that the hotel would reopen on May 1.
Then, just four days ago, the company announced in a social media post that the resort manager was leaving The Biltmore after 13 years.
“If the general manager is going away, it doesn’t look too positive,” one employee said.
It was one of the rare pieces of communication from the company.
Noozhawk is not identifying the employees because they fear retribution. They also are looking for other jobs and do not want to be perceived as troublemakers.
The employees, however, described a bleak situation. Some of the 450 workers who previously were making six figures have taken up jobs delivering for Whole Foods or driving for Uber. Others have lost their homes.
The workers have technically been furloughed, which means they have not been laid off. They are eligible to receive unemployment benefits, but for many it is a mere fraction of what they are used to earning.
They said their employment agreement contains an “impact” clause, which means they are entitled to severance pay, based on years of employment, if the hotel closes at no fault of the employees. They have not been laid off, however.
Some employees have worked at the resort for several decades and are in their 50s and 60s.
“The most tragic thing is people near their retirement who can’t find jobs at their age,” one employee said.
“Many people are suffering without their jobs, and the community has faced more impacts without the partnership with The Biltmore,” Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams said. “We hope they will reconsider and open.”
Mental health is also taking a toll.
“It is the biggest hardship because people are connected to their jobs,” Williams said. “It is who you are as a person. It feels failing. It is completely defeating to have that taken away.”
In August, hundreds of employees who had lost their jobs marched along Coast Village Road to The Biltmore in protest of the way they had been treated. Although many of the employees have collected unemployment checks, some employees are not citizens, so they aren’t able to collect unemployment checks. While on furlough, the employees have no health insurance or benefits from the luxury hotel.
The employee said it’s likely time to “shut the door” on the chances of the hotel reopening anytime soon.
The employees said workers feel sad.
“You have this beautiful, probably the most beautiful property in Santa Barbara, and it’s just kind of been thrown away,” an employee said. “It just seems so meaningless. Nobody really knows what is really going on and what is going to happen.”
Although Jeff Frapwell, assistant county executive officer, said the county does not track hotel bed tax by specific property, in March the county said it was about $2.8 million lower in estimated transient occupancy taxes, largely because of pandemic travel restrictions and the ongoing closure of The Biltmore.