As a hotel housekeeper, Amelia Acosta hustles to make the beds, vacuum the floors, scrub the toilets and empty the wastebaskets in at least 15 guest rooms a day.
The smallest oversight — a soiled towel left on the bed — can be the difference between a reprimand from her boss and a generous tip from a guest.
"I'm personally dedicated to my work," she said in Spanish, wiping smudge marks from a bathroom mirror at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in downtown Los Angeles.
Though Acosta sees herself as just another hardworking single mother, she is also one of the 861,000 workers in Southern California's largest industry. The $54-billion tourism trade has in the last few years surpassed manufacturing and wholesale trade as the region's largest job creator.
But unlike Hawaii or the Caribbean, where tourism workers are omnipresent and obvious, the industry's employees — like Acosta — are not as evident in Southern California.
Around L.A., unmistakable tourism jobs include tour-bus drivers on Hollywood Boulevard and ride operators at the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. But economists note that the tourism industry also includes workers who sell T-shirts at the Beverly Center, flip burgers on the Santa Monica Pier and manage rental-car agencies at Los Angeles International Airport.
For example, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimates there are 287,000 food-service jobs in the county alone dependent on spending by out-of-town visitors.
As Southern California recovers from the worst recession in decades, economists predict the tourism industry will continue to reign as the region's top job engine.
"The tourism industry will definitely generate more jobs just by its size," said Nancy Sidhu, the LAEDC's chief economist.
But the ascent of tourism has its downside. The vast majority of tourism jobs are low-paying, offer only part-time or seasonal work and are beset by a high turnover rate.
Still, in this economy, Acosta counts herself lucky to have a job that helps her pay her mortgage on a small house in South Los Angeles and raise her three children, including a son studying at UC Santa Barbara.
"This job has been like a blessing for me," she said after a recent shift.
Most of the rooms she cleans at the Bonaventure are occupied by business travelers and convention attendees; about 25% of the guests are leisure travelers, including foreign tourists.
Acosta didn't plan on being a housekeeper.
As a girl in Mexico, she studied to become a secretary. But while on vacation in the U.S., she met and married a man from Durango, Mexico, and started a family. She put aside her dreams of becoming a secretary and took low-wage jobs to help make ends meet. Acosta worked at a fast-food joint, a clothing manufacturer and a company that produces compact discs. About a year ago, she and her husband, a chef, divorced.
She learned about the housekeeping job at the Bonaventure from her sister, who worked there.
Acosta jumped at the chance to apply for a position that would put her into a union — a rarity, given that less than 4% of all workers are represented by a union. The average housekeeper in Southern California earns about $11 an hour, but as a union member, Acosta takes home about $13.60 an hour.
Also, she is paid extra if she cleans more than 15 rooms a shift.
But it's hard work. A study by a London hotel found that the average hotel housekeeper walks about seven miles a day on the job.
The tips can go as high as $20 per room, but Acosta said she really gets excited when a guest compliments her work to her supervisor.
"Sometimes they just leave a dollar, but other times they tell my boss what a great job I did, and I say, 'Wow!'"
Now Acosta has her eye on becoming a supervisor at the hotel, a job that would boost her pay and put her behind a desk. To meet that goal, she is taking classes after work each day and on Saturdays to learn English and become a U.S. citizen.
"It's rare to like your job," she said, "but I do."
First in a series profiling people working in Southern California's No. 1 industry. Next: A tour guide.