The workers tell WW that their bosses—all PSU employees—have created a culture of cronyism that has allowed them to hire their own relatives to work at the University Place Hotel. One worker says he had to pay kickbacks to his supervisor in order to get hired. And workers say they have been told to clean the university-owned Dunthorpe home of PSU President Wim Wiewel.
“I’ve worked in other places,” Ty Van, 53, a housekeeper at the PSU-owned hotel since 2007, tells WW through an interpreter, “but no one has ever treated me like this.”
Like other state universities, PSU is pushing the Legislature for more autonomy. The allegations raise questions about PSU’s ability to manage its own business affairs.
The conditions workers describe are difficult to square with university employment policies, and some practices—such as kickbacks—would be criminal if proved true.
University officials were told of the allegations in March. PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher says officials had interviewed 14 hotel employees, suspended three supervisors and were just wrapping up the investigation when WW inquired about the charges this week.
After the newspaper’s inquiries, Gallagher said in an email that the investigation found “no evidence” of extortion or tip stealing, but on May 7, PSU fired the hotel’s general manager and an assistant.
The allegations first came to light after Service Employees International Union Local 89 began representing workers at the hotel earlier this year. SEIU collected statements from workers and reported the allegations to PSU officials in March. Local 89 president Marc Nisenfeld says he’s never heard allegations such as those made by the hotel workers, who earn about $11 an hour.
“It’s absolutely appalling that what’s alleged could be happening in a public university,” Nisenfeld says.
In 2004, the university purchased the DoubleTree Hotel (formerly known as the Red Lion Inn), located at 310 SW Lincoln St., for $19.7 million. The purchase of the four-acre site was part of an ambitious growth strategy for PSU, whose student enrollment of 28,731 is larger than that of any other public Oregon university.
The original plan called for PSU eventually to demolish the 235-room hotel and replace it with dorms and classrooms, but the recession stalled that development.
PSU officials chose to keep operating the hotel rather than hire an outside company to manage it. The staff, including general manager Dennis Burkholder, became PSU employees.
PSU now advertises its University Place Hotel as “a smart little secret in the midst of downtown Portland.”
But Vietnamese workers responsible for cleaning rooms at the hotel say the real secret is how they were treated by their managers, including their supervisor, who is also a Vietnamese immigrant.
Although some of the housekeeping workers have been in the U.S. for as long as 15 years, they speak limited English and have few job skills.
Still, three of the workers agreed to speak on the record about their experiences working at PSU’s hotel. WW interviewed the workers with the assistance of a Vietnamese-speaking SEIU organizer and an independent translator, and reviewed time sheets and other documents.
Many of the allegations focus on Kim Nguyet Thi Christian, the hotel’s housekeeping supervisor, who co-owns a Portland cleaning business and a beach property in Ocean Shores, Wash., with Burkholder, the hotel’s general manager.
Workers say Nguyet demanded a kickback from Duy Phuong Do, 33, who showed WW pay records indicating PSU paid him more than $18,000 in 2008 for work that he says he never performed.
Duy says the work was either done by someone else or not done at all. Duy says Nguyet ordered him to kick the money back to her, holding out the prospect of future shifts as an inducement.
“If I did not allow it, she would not hire me,” Duy tells WW. Duy was eventually hired to work at the hotel.
Another hotel housekeeper, Ty Van, backs up Duy’s story. Ty tells WW she twice acted as a go-between, collecting $1,400 in cash from Duy and giving it to Nguyet, who denies the allegation.
“They are liars,” Nguyet says. “If she [Ty Van] were here now, I’d knock her down.”
Housekeepers also say Nguyet and other workers under her direction stole cash tips for them.
“When the supervisor went into a room, there was never any [tips],” says Ty, who says when she worked previously for six years cleaning rooms at a local Holiday Inn, she’d usually bring home $10 to $15 a day in tips.
“I brought it up with [Nguyet],” Ty says. “And she said, ‘Tips belong to the supervisor, and you can’t question that.’”
Nguyet says neither she nor subordinates stole tips. “It’s not true,” she says.
The hotel workers also describe a widespread culture of nepotism, which they say starts with Burkholder, 64. On the hotel’s website, Burkholder says he’s a Vietnam War veteran. The profile says he’s returned to Vietnam three times and is “currently researching and writing a novel about the country.”
Workers say Nguyet, Burkholder’s subordinate and business partner, hired friends and family members and gave them shifts that should have been worked by people already on the payroll, and paid favored employees for work they did not do and regularly assigned easier tasks to friends and family.
Nguyet acknowledges hiring friends and their family members but says complaints about favoritism are untrue.
Workers say one assistant supervisor hired her parents in 2011 and immediately put them on the payroll for 40 hours a week, while reducing veteran workers’ hours. They say she also filled out her husband’s time sheet for hours he did not work.
Tien Ong, another housekeeper, says Burkholder is ultimately to blame.
“He knows everything,” Tien says, “but he does nothing to help us.”
Burkholder, who earned $68,304 as the hotel’s general manager, says he never disclosed to PSU owning property or being in business with Nguyet, which he admits was a mistake.
But he says he’s dismayed by employee complaints. “I’ve always been complimented for running a tight ship,” he says.
Nisenfeld, president of the union local, says nepotism and cronyism violate university policies. He says bringing in family members discriminates against those already on the payroll, as does selectively handing out work.
Bao Nguyen, an SEIU organizer who frequently works with Asian immigrants, says it’s not unusual for immigrants to be preyed upon, but it is unusual on a public payroll.
“I haven’t seen anything this egregious before,” Bao says. “They are operating their own little fiefdom.”
PSU’s Gallagher says hotel housekeeping staff cleaned Wiewel’s residence twice a week and after PSU events held at the residence. Gallagher says the work is appropriate: The hotel employees work for the university’s facilities office, which maintains the president’s house.
Nisenfeld says SEIU’s contract with the university does not include custodial services for buildings not owned by the hotel.
On March 11, the union informed PSU of the employees’ allegations and filed grievances. In an April 25 email to SEIU, Shana Sechrist of PSU’s human resources department said the university interviewed employees and “promptly placed the managers alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing on administrative leave.”
On the morning of May 7, the day after WW contacted PSU about the hotel workers’ allegations, PSU fired Nguyet and Burkholder.
“After conducting the investigation, [we] decided to make a fresh start,” Gallagher tells WW. “[We] will begin a search for their replacements.”