The California Labor Commissioner’s Office is investigating a Marriott -managed hotel in San Diego as the chain deals with a multi-city strike, as well as the staffing agency it hired to provide workers, a spokesman with the state agency told Bloomberg Law.

The office declined to comment on specific details of the investigation, which involves Marriott’s Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter and staffing firm Hotel Cleaning Services Inc. But the state agency—also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement—specifically targets wage violations, as well as retaliation against whistleblowing workers. No wage claims have been filed against either entity, spokesman Paola Laverde said.

The investigation of Hotel Cleaning Services began on Oct. 10, the same day the investigation of the Westin commenced, Laverde told Bloomberg Law in an email on Oct. 17.

Approximately 130 porters, housekeepers, and other employees at the Westin initiated a strike on Oct. 7 that is still ongoing. The strike is part of a national effort organized by the union UNITE HERE, which has initiated strikes at Marriott hotels in Boston, San Jose, Calif., San Francisco, Detroit, and Oakland, and on several Hawaiian islands.

Marriott and Hotel Cleaning Services denied any wrongdoing.

It’s not just California where hotel workers are going after both the contractor and the subcontractor.

Hundreds of temporary hotel workers in Chicago sued their employer, United Service Cos., on Oct. 12 over allegations of missed paychecks as well as straight-time and overtime wages absent from paychecks.

Potential Immigration Effects

The inquiry could also touch on issues of immigration, as the union says temporary staffing agencies often employ undocumented workers.

“We are deeply disappointed to learn of the alleged exploitation of temp workers in Marriott hotels under strike, and the ongoing investigation into the matter,” UNITE HERE national spokesperson Rachel Gumpert told Bloomberg Law in an email. “This is another example of Marriott failing to behave as the industry leader that they should be and try to position themselves as.”

“Marriott International maintains compliant I-9 standards for both our own employees and vendor employees,” Marriott International Inc. spokesperson Hunter Hardinge told Bloomberg Law in an email statement, but did not comment further.

The I-9 form is used to verify the identity of candidates for employment and is distributed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We have not been informed of any investigation and we have not participated in any investigation,” the president of Arizona-based Hotel Cleaning Services, John Knoepker, told Bloomberg Law. “We have not broken any labor laws,” he said. “Everything you’ve been given is totally false.”

Knoepker confirmed that Hotel Cleaning Services has worked with the Westin Gaslamp Quarter.

“This is nothing but a union tactic to try to improve their bargaining position with the hotel,” he said.

Industry Ripple Effect

Turning to third-party staffing agencies to clean lobbies and restaurants is a common practice in the hospitality industry, Jeff Beck, a Michigan State University professor who held various managerial roles at Marriott, told Bloomberg Law. Maintaining a standard of service and cost savings is a motivator, he said.

What customers often don’t know is that those workers are also often cleaning their rooms, Beck said.

Most hotel guests are fine with third-party companies working in public settings, such as lobbies and restaurants, “but I do know that there are hotels where workers have been hired to clean rooms,” he said. “These hotel managers are likely not to admit that they have third-party companies or community agencies helping to clean guest rooms during the day.”

Beck said Marriott’s slogan during his decade of work with the hotel chain was to take care of employees so they would take care of customers. In this particular case, using the temp agency may have been a local operating decision.

“There’s a lot of oversight from the brands, but there’s a lot of local management that occurs,” he said. ”The general managers are expected to make good decisions on how the hotel will operate.”

The decision to use a temp agency might also be attributed to a tighter labor market, he said.

“That labor pool, if you will, is really drying up a little bit, and people aren’t as interested in the industry,” Beck said. “The hospitality industry may need to look a little bit closer at the third-party agencies that they hire.”

The local hospitality union is reluctant to speak out against temporary staffing agencies in unionized hotels because doing so could potentially hurt staffing agency workers, UNITE HERE Local 30 President Brigette Browning told Bloomberg Law.

Joint Employer Liability

Under California labor and employment law, both the contractor and the subcontractor are liable for wage violations. That means if wage violations are found in an investigation, Marriott could also be liable, according to Jay Wang, an attorney with California-based Fox, Wang & Morgan.

“Under California law, a contractor can be liable for the conduct of its subcontractor,” Wang said. Joint employer liability comes into play when the contractor directs such things as length of shifts, hourly wages, and required tasks, he told Bloomberg Law.

When dealing with staffing agencies, Wang advises primary employers, like Marriott, to adopt a “hands-off” approach, but he said that “realistically and practically, that’s almost impossible.”

California also leans more employee-friendly than management-friendly, he said.

“It’s policy that whatever law is” more protective of “an employee’s rights is the law that is followed here in California,” he said.

Wang sees the relationships continuing, also citing the tight labor market.

“For these larger hospitality groups, like a Marriott or a Hyatt or a Hilton, given the economy’s doing well, and there might be a shortage of talent, I think it will be a necessary evil in terms of joint employer liability,” he said.

—With assistance from Michael J. Bologna