|By Mike Hughlett, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 16, 2008 - A federal appeals court Monday shot down an Illinois law mandating paid breaks for hotel housekeepers in Cook County, saying federal law trumps the state statute.
Hotel owners have fumed about the law since it took effect in 2005, while the hotel workers' union says it helps alleviate mounting workloads on housekeepers. The law requires housekeepers receive two paid 15-minute breaks per shift.
But the law doesn't have a general application -- it covers only some workers in Cook County -- and interferes with federal rules regarding collective bargaining, according to a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
The court ruled on a suit brought against the state by the Congress Hotel, but the decision applies to all hotels in Cook County. "This is a huge victory," said Peter Andjelkovich, an attorney for the Congress Hotel.
The Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association had failed to overturn the paid-breaks law in state court. Upon hearing of the federal court decision, association President Marc Gordon said: "I can't believe it. That's great news."
Not so for housekeepers. "I'm deeply disappointed about the court's decision," said Henry Tamarin, president of Unite Here Local 1, which represents Chicago hotel workers.
The union and the Congress Hotel are locked in a bitter strike that's now in its fifth year. The union's 130 workers went on strike after the hotel declared an impasse in negotiations, cut wages 7 percent and froze contributions to their health-care coverage.
The hotel has argued it can't afford to pay wages and benefits in line with contracts accepted at other hotels. The union contract at the hotel when the strike began remains in effect, Andjelkovich said.
The state's paid breaks mandate grew from the addition of super-thick mattresses and extra pillows and sheets that produce more work for housekeepers and foster more on-the-job injuries, according to hotel workers and their union. Employers caught violating the law were required to pay workers for lost break time at three times their normal wage.
Tamarin said the union "contemplates" appealing Monday's decision. It could take its case to the full 7th Circuit or the Supreme Court. firstname.lastname@example.org
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