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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Santa Monica Businesses Can Afford Living Wages

November 02, 2002|Sheila James Kuehl | Democrat Sheila James Kuehl represents Santa Monica in the California Senate.

The city of Santa Monica has pumped nearly $200 million in taxpayer funds into its transformation from a sleepy coastal town into a world-class tourist destination, greatly enriching beach hotels and other private businesses with public dollars. Yet while coastal hotels, restaurants and retailers benefited from this investment, their employees did not.

Despite working full time -- most for luxury hotels charging hundreds of dollars a night for a room -- many tourism workers cannot provide their families with basic necessities and must rely on government anti-poverty programs or charity.

Measure JJ on Santa Monica's Nov. 5 ballot would help to rectify this inequity. The ballot measure, which covers only businesses that gross more than $5 million a year, would increase the wages of an estimated 2,000 workers in the tourist area along the coast to $10.50 an hour. That is the point at which a person supporting a family of four no longer qualifies for food stamps.

In an immigrant working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, the average two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,000 a month. On a salary of $7 or $8 an hour, that leaves virtually nothing for food, utilities, clothing or anything else.

Most of these workers do not have employer-provided family health benefits and cannot afford insurance, so they are left to depend on publicly funded clinics, many of which have recently been shut down.

Unfortunately, rather than embracing an opportunity to correct a problem -- amply documented in a study commissioned by the city -- Santa Monica's tourism industry has spent nearly $2 million to block the living-wage law.

It has contracted with aggressive public relations firms, such as the Dolphin Group -- architects of the racially inflammatory Willie Horton ads and tobacco company campaigns -- and with a firm whose partners represented corrupt former state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

Whom should the voters trust? People who are paid to obfuscate the truth or hundreds of community and religious leaders who have worked to promote the public interest for years?

We have been told that this law will reduce social services. That's false; Santa Monica can afford to pay the living wage and maintain its budget priorities. We've been told that this law discriminates. That's false; the law helps those workers in need of immediate relief. We've been told this will ruin the tourist industry. That's false; the industry is one of the most prosperous in the country and can readily afford to pay workers enough to support their families in dignity.

Measure JJ is a carefully crafted law that will not cover small or medium-size businesses, and it includes a hardship exemption for businesses facing financial difficulty.

If California were a country, it would have the sixth-largest economy in the world. Santa Monica, one of the state's most prosperous corners, should not permit people whose hard work supports one of our most important industries to live without adequate food, shelter and medical care, relying on taxpayer-funded services to survive.

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