Would proposed Convention Center hotel offer DP benefits?

They aren’t included in operating agreement, but city leaders say they’ll ask Omni to provide them, assuming voters defeat Prop 1 on May 9

John Wright  |  News Editor
Mayor Tom Leppert, Ed Oakley, Dave Neumann and Pauline Medrano.

The city of Dallas has offered domestic partner benefits to its employees since 2004. And DP benefits are nearly universal among major chains in the gay-friendly lodging industry, from the Ritz Carlton to the Super 8 Motel.

However, it remained unclear this week whether a proposed $500 million city-owned Convention Center hotel would offer DP benefits to its estimated 800 permanent employees in Dallas.

Irving-based Omni Hotels, the company chosen by the city to operate the Convention Center hotel if it’s built, reportedly is one of the few chains that doesn’t offer DP benefits.

A spokeswoman for Omni Hotels, which operates 38 luxury hotels in North America, failed to provide any information about the company’s LGBT-related employment practices this week.

In response to inquiries from Dallas Voice, city leaders said the question of whether Omni Hotels would offer DP benefits at the Convention Center hotel had not previously been raised. DP benefits aren’t included in the 15-year operating agreement between the city and Omni Hotels that was signed in February.

But Mayor Tom Leppert and other supporters of the Convention Center hotel on the City Council — including Dave Neumann and Pauline Medrano — vowed this week to try to persuade Omni Hotels to offer DP benefits in Dallas, and they said they’re confident they’ll be able to do so.

“There’s no issue,” Leppert assured Dallas Voice on Wednesday, April 29. “I think Omni will be very responsive to the community. I think if the hotel doesn’t go forward, then the reality is, we can’t be responsive in any of these areas. If the hotel doesn’t go forward, we don’t have the jobs, we don’t have the opportunity to provide anything.”

Leppert’s statements came two days after early voting began in May 9 municipal elections. Among the items on the ballot in Dallas is Proposition 1, which if approved by voters would prevent the city from building and owning the Convention Center hotel.

Neumann said Wednesday he was unsure whether it’s too late to amend the city’s operating agreement with Omni Hotels, but he said he’d push for the company to offer DP benefits.

“I would certainly be glad to be an advocate for that,” Neumann said. “I think that the issue needs to be broached. I think it’s a reasonable expectation on the city’s part, and what we would ask for is something equal to what the city of Dallas does for its employees.”

Medrano said Wednesday she thinks Omni Hotels would be “very, very open” to offering DP benefits in Dallas. “I don’t foresee a problem,” she said.

Councilwoman Angela Hunt, an opponent of the city-owned Convention Center hotel, said earlier in the week that although it may not necessarily have been a “dealbreaker,” the issue of DP benefits should have been addressed during the process of selecting an operator for the hotel.

“It was never raised, and that’s an extremely good question and I think an important question that needs to be asked of a lot of the major contractors that the city has,” Hunt said. “I think there are a lot of other questions we could ask that the city currently isn’t asking.”

Openly gay former Dallas City Councilman Ed Oakley, a prominent supporter of the Convention Center hotel, agreed that the issue of DP benefits should have come up sooner.

“It’s a legitimate question, and it should have been asked during the vetting process,” Oakley said, adding that if he were still on the council, he likely would have raised the issue.

But Oakley, a spokesman for a pro-hotel group, added that he hopes the issue of DP benefits doesn’t muddy the water for LGBT voters.

“If they don’t have domestic partner benefits, I would still be voting for [the hotel], because it’s the right thing for the city,” Oakley said. “If they [Omni Hotels] had a horrible track record on gay issues, that would be different. … I just don’t want to confuse the issue with the hotel at this stage of the game, because it’s too late to have that conversation. We’re mixing apples and oranges, in my estimation.”

Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s workplace project, said the national gay-rights group has confirmed that Omni Hotels has a written employment nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation. Nondiscrimination policies and DP benefits are among the criteria used by HRC in compiling its annual Corporate Equality Index, which ranks major corporations according to how gay-friendly they are.

But Herrschaft said HRC has no additional information about Omni Hotels. He said the company doesn’t’ receive the group’s annual survey and isn’t included in the rankings because it’s privately owned.

Dallas officials said Omni Hotels would be required to comply with a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Herrschaft said that if Omni Hotels doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits, it would make the company an exception to the rule in the industry.

“By and large, all of the major hotel chains offer domestic partner benefits, even if you look at allegedly conservative shops,” Herrschaft said. “There are literally hundreds of different hotel brands out there that provide domestic partner benefits for their employees. … I think they’re [Omni Hotels is] missing out obviously on a market here at a time when most hotels want every reservation they can get.”

Caryn Kboudi, a spokeswoman at Omni Hotels’ headquarters in Irving, said Monday, April 27 that she was unsure whether the company offers DP benefits. Kboudi said she would find out and respond to Dallas Voice by Tuesday. But by Thursday, she hadn’t done so and wasn’t returning phone calls from the newspaper.

Chris Heinbaugh, Mayor Leppert’s openly gay chief of staff, said he was told this week by an Omni Hotels representative that the company offers DP benefits “in some cities.” But Heinbaugh said he was unsure whether those cities are all in California, where employers are effectively required by state law to offer DP benefits.

Omni Hotels is owned by Highland Park billionaire Robert Rowling, one of the wealthiest people in Texas and a major Republican political donor. Records show Rowling has contributed money to numerous politicians who are widely considered to be anti-gay, including former Pennsylvania Congressman Rick Santorum, who in 2003 famously equated homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. The records show Rowling personally contributed more than $4,000 to Santorum in 2004 and 2005.

The North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce this week reiterated its support for the Convention Center hotel and announced its opposition to Proposition 1.

But Chamber President Tony Vedda said Omni Hotels’ LGBT-related employment practices weren’t a factor in the Chamber’s decision because they weren’t known and the company had already been selected as the operator.

Vedda said Chamber officials, who’ve already met once with Omni Hotels representatives, look forward to working with the company on issues including its employment practices.

“I feel confident that we’ll be able to bring them into the family of GLBT-supportive businesses,” Vedda said. “We don’t always have the ability to address issues before the fact, but that doesn’t mean we won’t address them after the fact.”

E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2009.

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