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Overlooked by politicians, low-wage workers barely scrape by

The next mayor needs to address the problem of people who are forced to work two jobs and share apartments just to survive.

May 21, 2013|Steve Lopez

Last week, I visited a South Los Angeles woman whose story should embarrass us. It's a story that's not uncommon, and deserves the full attention of the next mayor of the city.

Alicia, whose full name I'm withholding because she's afraid her boss would fire her, is a maid who started working for a major hotel chain in Hollywood about three years ago. Her hourly pay is $8.65, and her last raise was 5 cents an hour.

I kid you not. They threw her an extra nickel.

Toward the end of the mayoral campaign, local labor leaders tried to win support for candidate Wendy Greuel by suggesting that she would raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles to $15 an hour. It was a misleading ploy, given the fact that a mayor can't unilaterally establish a new minimum wage, and Greuel later qualified that she only supported the idea of $15 for hotel workers, not everyone.

When I first heard the number, I thought $15 sounded too high to shoot for. But then I did the math. It works out to $30,000 a year.

In Los Angeles, who can get by on that, or even less than that?

The answer is hundreds of thousands of people. But they work two jobs, share apartments, miss out on time with their kids, stretch every dollar and hope their children will get a chance to do better.

"Over one-quarter of workers earn under $25,000 for full-time, year-round work" in Los Angeles County, said Daniel Flaming of the Economic Roundtable.

"Eleven percent of these workers work in restaurants. I eat out," said Flaming, "and I eat my meals courtesy of people who earn darn little. Seven percent of the labor force that earns under $25,000 works in construction, 4% in apparel, 3% in groceries."

In the child-care industry, he said, 47% make less than $25,000.

And then there are the hotel workers.

Several years ago, the city established a living wage ordinance for hotel employees near LAX, where the minimum wage is $12. But the average hotel worker's pay in the city is about $10.50.

Alicia, whose commute to Hollywood takes 90 minutes on public transit, has to clean 17 rooms during her eight-hour shift. At times, she said, she has to run from one room to the next to stay on schedule.

"Sometimes you find condoms and you have to clean up vomit," she said of the mess some guests leave behind.

With two kids to feed, and virtually no help from the husband she's separated from, Alicia does what a lot of low-wage earners do. She rents out one of her bedrooms, and on some days, when she leaves her Hollywood job, she heads for a second job at a downtown hotel.

The second hotel is union and she makes more than $14 an hour, but she's low in seniority, so that means part-time work and no benefits. With the two jobs, she said, she works seven shifts weekly and makes about $1,600 a month.

That comes to $19,200 a year, plus roughly $1,200 in tips annually.

"Sometimes when I come home the kids are sleeping," said Alicia. "I'd like more time to dedicate to them. I have too much stress and yell at the kids, but it's not their fault."

Alicia said her renter works at a cemetery, maintaining gravestones. I asked if she knew how much he makes.

"Less than $9 an hour," she said.

Joining us in Alicia's apartment was a neighbor, Marlene Santos, who lost her cooking job 18 months ago when a Glendale restaurant closed. She said she had worked there 20 years and was making $13.90 an hour.

Another neighbor, who works at the same hotel as Alicia, also joined the conversation. She makes $8.25 an hour and said she works up a sweat, especially when she has to lift heavy mattresses to change sheets. If you don't finish your 17 rooms on time, she said, you get a warning.

"Three warnings and you're fired," said Alicia.

So what can employees or anyone else do about it?

Well, organized labor didn't do itself any favors in this election.

"They had a beautiful brand, and they've tarnished it," said Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University's Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Public employee unions spent millions on candidates in hopes of preserving or sweetening their deals, even though the average salary at the DWP is $100,000 and 70% of city employees contribute nothing toward monthly healthcare premiums. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, private sector employees who make up the backbone of the city's service industry are destitute and taken for granted, whether they have union jobs or not.

I'm not suggesting that every business can afford a $15 minimum wage — nearly twice the state minimum of $8. But mayoral candidates spent far too much time bickering about the role of public employee unions and not enough time on how to lift tens of thousands of hardworking people out of virtual poverty.

City Hall, labor and business can do better. Lots better. They can creatively grow tech jobs, said Guerra, and build in higher wages for the service employees who work in that industry. And they can assist more people who are interested in starting their own small businesses.

As for hotel employees, you would think business was hurting, the way they are treated. But in fact, tourism revenues rose to a record $16.4 billion in Los Angeles County last year, with 41 million visitors and a record high 75% occupancy rate for hotels.

Paying a little more than $8 an hour, to those whose work padded the profits, is shameful.

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