CHELSEA — A plan to convert a longtime religious institution into a high-end hotel has led to the firing of 12 workers — lay-offs the owner is blaming on an act of God.
Developer the Brodsky Organization claims damage from Hurricane Sandy forced it to cut the jobs as it turns the Desmond Tutu Center into the luxury Highline Hotel.
But the people laid off say the new owner fired them, then offered to take them back at a lower wage.
The Episcopal General Theological Seminary sold off part of the center to the Brodsky Organization in September, keeping a conference center in the building but giving the 60-room hotel to the developer as part of the $16 million deal.
Brodsky now plans to transform it into the luxury Highline Hotel, overhauling the rooms and building a restaurant and bar with two patios — all needing a liquor license.
Longtime workers said they were paid well and received benefits working at the Desmond Tutu Center at 180 10th Ave., named after the retired South African bishop who spent his life fighting poverty and campaigning for social justice.
But after the takeover, staffers said they were arbitrarily split between either the conference center, which is owned by the seminary and managed by Aramark, or the hotel, which is owned by Brodsky and MCR Development.
Hotel employees lost their benefits after the deal, but were told they would get them back after a three-month probation. When Hurricane Sandy struck, flooding the complex's basement and destroying most of its mechanical systems, the hotel laid off 12 of its 17 employees.
"The surges resulted in heavy flooding that damaged all the building's mechanical systems, leaving the building inoperable as a hotel," wrote general manager Osama Aduib in a letter written on Desmond Tutu Center letterhead and provided to DNAinfo New York.
"Unfortunately, this has resulted in a shutdown which subsequently resulted in lay-offs. The majority of the team at the Desmond Tutu Hotel was relieved of their duties with the last day of employment being Monday November 12th."
Angel Cortes, 23, who worked at the Desmond Tutu center for five years as a house man and conference services aid, said owners are using the superstorm as a smokescreen.
"They're using Sandy as an excuse," said Cortes, who was among those fired. "They told us we would have to re-apply for our old jobs, and they said we could get them back at a lower pay for less hours."
Cortes, along with former co-worker Katterine Cardona, 42, appeared at Wednesday's meeting of Community Board 4. Former board member Miguel Acevedo convinced the board to hold off on a decision about whether to recommend a liquor license for the hotel until the labor dispute is settled.
Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, said the layoffs stemmed purely from the extensive storm damage. Employees will be able to re-apply for their jobs — at the same wages — when the hotel re-opens, Morse said.
"We told 12 people at the hotel that we have no guests and that they don't have any hours because we have no guests," he said.
"No job offer has been made subsequent to that letter going out at any wage scale, high or low, and of course we're going to pay the same when we re-open for business."
Morse said the hotel was attempting to get a city contract to house victims of the storm. If the hotel does not win that contract, it will begin renovations on the building and aim for an April re-opening.
"At that point, we would hire a lot more people when we re-open," he said.
"We're going from a two-star hotel to a four-star hotel."
He estimated the hotel would increase staff by about 25 percent, adding higher-end jobs like bellmen.
This is the second labor dispute in recent months at the seminary complex. Over the summer, a group of union maintenance workers demonstrated outside of the complex for weeks after the seminary canned them after decades of employment.
Chad Rancourt, a spokesman for the General Theological Seminary, said he could not comment on employee relations at the hotel, and he stressed that the hotel and conference center are separate entities.
"Highline Hotel has taken the guest rooms," he said. "The seminary does not hold a controlling interest in that."
An administrator at the seminary said employees on the conference center side kept their jobs, and that the seminary was told all hotel staff would be re-interviewed by the Highline Hotel, with the expectation that almost all would keep their jobs.
Cortes said he was skeptical after the layoffs left him without a job at the holidays — and a bitter taste in his mouth about the Episcopal Church.
"They try to make themselves look good by handing us off to someone else," he said.