This story was updated with a response from the Hilton’s attorney on Tuesday, April 11, at 3:30 p.m.
Six undocumented housekeepers at the Hilton Charlotte University Place hotel say they suffered through a decade of sexual assaults by a boss who threatened to have them deported if they complained.
The women’s lawsuit against the hotel, its corporate owners and one of its managers provides an unusual example of non-U.S. citizens turning to the courts for help. After living and working for years under the risk of being forced to leave the country, the women have taken their story – and themselves – into the public arena when the risk of deportation appears to be particularly high.
“These women are very brave,” said their attorney, Corey Rosensteel of Charlotte. “Certainly you could argue they’re even braver given what’s going on in the world right now.”
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The trial is scheduled for late July.
In their complaint, the housekeepers say the abuse at the hands of supervisor Jose Rivas began shortly after they were hired at the Hilton, a cornerstone of the booming office, retail and entertainment district bordering UNC Charlotte and the future light rail line.
Rivas, the women say, would trap them in the bedrooms and bathrooms they were cleaning at the time, coming up from behind to grope and fondle them on and beneath their clothing. When they asked him to stop or refused his sexual demands, Rivas threatened to fire them, cut their hours or report them to immigration authorities, the lawsuit says.
When they complained to Rivas’ supervisors about his behavior, they say their complaints were either ignored or dismissed.
The assaults, which the lawsuit says occurred “sometimes daily,” lasted for 10 years. They ended in October 2014 when one of the women – who was being attacked by Rivas at the time – fled to the Hilton’s lobby to notify a police officer, the lawsuit says. The Observer does not print the names of sexual-assault victims.
Rivas was arrested and, five days later, was fired by the hotel. In April 2015, he pleaded guilty in Mecklenburg District Court to assault on a female but did not admit responsibility for a crime. He served 15 days in jail.
The housekeepers’ claims include intentional and negligent infliction of emotional stress, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and negligent hiring, supervision and retention by the hotel owners.
Winston-Salem attorney Kenneth Carlson, who is representing the hotel and its owners, said his clients are “confident that we took all appropriate and legal steps to address this situation when it was first brought to management’s attention over two years ago. The hotel values all our employees, and does not tolerate assaults or harassment of any type by anyone.”
Rivas’ attorney, Jorge Gonzalez of Charlotte, did not return a call seeking comment.
In his response to the lawsuit last year, Gonzalez said the allegations against his client are not true. In his filing, Carlson said the complaint should be thrown out, in part, because the Hilton owners were not aware of the allegations against Rivas and took immediate action when they came to light. Carlson also argued that the housekeepers contributed their own negligence by not reporting Rivas in a timely way.
Across the Carolinas, undocumented workers make up a growing part of the service and manual labor economy, particularly in the construction and custodial industries. Estimates are that Charlotte-Mecklenburg has more than 40,000 undocumented workers 16 and older.
These employees are frequently victimized on the job by employers with withheld paychecks, unpaid hours or being forced to work in unsafe conditions. They do not complain because they don’t know that they have legal protections or because they are fear they will be reported to immigration authorities. The latter threat appears to carry more weight under Donald Trump’s ongoing crackdown of undocumented immigrants that had led to a spike in deportations.
“It’s open season. Everybody’s a high-priority target now,” said Raleigh immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth.
Asked why there was a two-year gap between Rivas’ arrest and the filing of the suit, Rosentheel said allegations of this nature require an appropriate investigation, and that his clients early on “were not aware of their rights.”
“These are people who thought they didn’t have a voice,” Rosensteel said. “When you’re talking about taking on a large corporation like this one, it’s a big step.”