Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Midtown Athletic Club’s response to worker accusations.
BUCKTOWN — Bucktown’s Midtown Athletic Club fired its entire housekeeping staff last week, a move ex-staffers believe was retaliation for speaking out about work conditions.
The staff of 38 was laid off April 13 — just a few weeks after holding a work stoppage to protest the gym’s treatment of them, according to a news release from Arise Chicago, which has helped the non-unionized workers organize.
The workers spent the past six months organizing for better working conditions, they said. They were previously told they would be laid off May 1, but the management at the gym, 2444 N. Elston Ave., laid them off weeks earlier than expected, they said.
Midtown’s President Jon Brady said the long-planned layoffs had nothing to do with retaliation and that staffers were invited to reapply for their jobs through a third-party company that is taking over housekeeping duties at the club.
Though staffers were told their jobs would end a few weeks earlier than expected, they were all paid through May 1, he said.
Earlier this year, workers filed complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor, Chicago Office of Labor Standards, National Labor Relations Board and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The workers have filed more complaints in response to the layoffs.
In those complaints, the workers said the club refused to provide them with adequate sick leave and endangered workers by exposing them to unsafe cleaning chemicals without proper protective equipment.
But Brady said the federal agency found no wrongdoing on Midtown’s part.
“The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found on January 5, 2023, that Midtown Athletic had provided a satisfactory response to the complaint referenced,” Brady wrote. He said the club is fully compliant with all health and safety protocols.
Brady said the cleaning staff had the same amount of sick time as every other club employee, as well.
Still, workers believe the layoffs were related to making their complaints public.
“This was obvious retaliation,” said Vanessa Vasquez, who worked at Midtown for two years. “They basically fired us twice in one month. They decided to fire us to prevent us from organizing, and then fired us more quickly before more members spoke up and public support grew.”
“It made me feel disrespected and disposable to be told I would be let go sooner than they said,” said Claudia Gonzalez, who had worked at the club for two and a half years. “It was a real gut punch.”
The workers want to keep their jobs and are asking for the opportunity to collaborate with management about improving working conditions, they said.
When the workers were laid off April 13, management asked them to sign resignation agreements that would prohibit them from holding the club liable for abruptly firing them without notice, according to Arise Chicago officials.
Workers were told they had to sign the document if they wanted to retrieve their belongings from their lockers and receive the pay they were owed, they said. They said the majority of the workers refused to sign the document.
“While workers were offered severance, it is entirely untrue to claim that a majority of the workers rejected the severance offers,” Brady said.
Cristina Perez, who worked at Midtown for two years, said management wouldn’t allow her into the building to get her medication from her locker because she refused to sign the document.
“What would happen if I ran out of medication?” Perez said. “What was I supposed to do? It made me feel like I was asking for a big favor or a gift for something so basic as accessing my own medicine. It was so disrespectful and made me feel trapped.”
Brady disputed this claim saying no one was blocked from accessing their lockers.
“Midtown Athletic is not taking retaliatory action,” he said.
Katherine Bissell Córdova, who’s been a member of the gym for about a year, said she was “very angry” to hear about how the cleaning staff were treated. She said she felt “ashamed to be associated with and paying dues to a company like that.”
“I always found them to be extremely hard working and found the place to be in very good shape,” Bissell Córdova said. “It’s a very high-volume club, which means they are working so hard to keep it so clean and they’re always so friendly.”
Bissell Córdova said she wants the company to hire the workers back immediately or she will find another gym to work out at.
“I think it’s very insulting and very inhumane,” Bissell Córdova said. “For the most part, I see a lot of appreciation from members for these workers. To fire workers who are just trying to stand up for their rights, it’s unacceptable. I’d expect better from Midtown.”
Many of the workers still hope to return to their jobs and plan to continue raising awareness about the situation, they said.
“We want club members to know that management was swift and arbitrary in their decision-making and did not consider the impact this would have on workers and the experience of club members,” Gonzalez said. “We want to make them answer for why they did this, and [we] believe members are in a unique position to apply economic pressure on Midtown in hopes they reconsider.”
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