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Struggling Omni William Penn Workers Demand Accountability, Say They've Seen No Money From Hotel's PPP Loan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- They're called Paycheck Protection Program loans or PPP and they're designed to allow businesses to stay open and keep paying their employees.

So why did Pittsburgh's most historic hotel secure a $3.5 million loan while its employees haven't worked a day since March?

Now the union representing those employees, UNITE HERE, is calling on the United States' Small Business Administration (SBA) to hold the hotel accountable for the loan it received.

KDKA Investigator Meghan Schiller talked to two furloughed workers who want to know if they'll ever see any of the money.

"Our employer doesn't care about us, so if we don't come out and voice our opinions about it, we're not going to be heard."

Zebedee Williams wants to talk, and he's got the time. He hasn't worked since March.

"I was the overnight banquet houseman. I was responsible for setting up conventions, meetings, weddings and proms. Any type of function that the Omni had," said Williams, a furloughed employee at Omni William Penn Hotel.

Now he stands across the street with his coworker, wondering if they'll ever be able to go back.

Photo Credit: KDKA Photojournalist Tim Lawson

"We don't know - that's the biggest thing," said Will Arthur, another furloughed employee at the Omni William Penn Hotel. "I think, just generally, it's fear. We don't know what is going to happen and they haven't been forthcoming with answers."

Downtown Pittsburgh's Omni William Penn Hotel shuttered in March, blocked off the revolving doors, and posted a sign saying it's a "decision to temporarily suspend operations."

So why did this Pittsburgh-based Omni apply for and receive a $3.5 million PPP loan?

The Omni's Director of Communications tells KDKA's Meghan Schiller it could use the money for payroll costs, mortgage expenses, rent and utilities. The Small Business Administration requires at least 60 percent to go towards payroll.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller asked Nia Winston, the head of UNITE HERE: "Did any of the employees receive any of the Paycheck Protection money?"

"Nada," said Winston. "Zip, dime, zero, nothing, zero. No one received anything. Not a worker. We have 262 workers there, and no one has received anything."

Winston heads UNITE HERE. It's a union representing 9,000 hotel workers, including hundreds in Pittsburgh at various hotel chains.

"What's interesting to me is that they have opened non-union Omnis across the country, but meanwhile, ours is still closed," said Winston.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller reached out to Omni's Director of Communications and learned Omni has reopened about 80 percent of its hotels, but there's no reopening date for the downtown Pittsburgh Omni because of the pandemic and low volume.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller asked: "Did any of the $3.5 million go the hotel's employees?"

The Omni didn't answer directly, but said some money could go to "payroll costs, mortgage expenses, rent and utilities."

"I'm 41-years-old. I put a lot into this job to where it wasn't just me punching the clock, I was actually going in there learning my field, moving up, I was going to retire from this industry," said Williams.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Now he said he's lining up at food distributions to feed his three kids.

Arthur said he's currently uninsured.

"Really, the employees built up this place and now they feel like they're being abandoned," said Arthur.

Omni's Director of Communications tells KDKA that its "charitable foundation has provided over $3.1 million in grants to Omni associates affected by the COVID-19 crisis, including associates from the Omni William Penn Hotel."

While these two furloughed workers tell KDKA that would help, they said they haven't seen a dime. When KDKA's Meghan Schiller asked about those grants, the Omni declined to respond about its process.

"Basic needs. Basic necessities. Providing food, toiletries, clothing, just all-around life with three children. It's really hard," said Williams.

July 7 will mark one year since these workers last punched out and the union contract says if they don't return to work by then, they'll lose the right to get their old jobs back and keep seniority.

"Make no mistake about it, you know, we have CEOs and that's great and we have people that manage the place, but every time a guest comes in those doors, it's the workers that welcome them," said Winston. "And it's the workers that serve them, and every time they choose to come back, it's because they were treated great by a worker."

The union tells KDKA it knows of only one worker at the Omni William Penn who received help from the Dallas-based hotel chain. Winston said she looks forward to sitting down at the table with the Omni's leadership to work on a solution.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the correct employee recall date of July 7. The original story listed March 24 as the employee recall date, but the official date being observed is July 7 because it is one year from when the company sent the WARN notice to employees, according to the hotel union.


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