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L.A. expected to soon debate raising minimum wage for hotel workers

L.A. City Council members are expected to propose requiring large hotels to pay employees $15 an hour, double the national minimum.

January 13, 2014|By James Rainey
  • Maria Elena Durazo, center, of the county Federation of Labor, says labor leaders hope a coming Los Angeles proposal to require large hotels to pay workers at least $15 an hour will spread to other industries.
Maria Elena Durazo, center, of the county Federation of Labor, says labor… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles could soon take the national lead in dramatically raising the minimum wage — with members of the City Council expected to propose that large hotels be required to pay roughly $15 an hour to their workers.

That rate would more than double the national minimum of $7.25 an hour and push far above California's rate of $8. Union leaders want the increase to apply at hotels with 100 rooms or more, saying such a hike would lift housekeepers, busboys and maintenance workers out of poverty and inject much-needed cash into a still languorous local economy.

Council members were expected to bring the proposal forward in the coming weeks. Most declined to discuss how they would vote, though Councilman Paul Koretz called the $15 rate "reasonable in a city where costs are so high." The political debate is expected to take months, with the precise rate and size of hotels affected subject to change as the hotel lobby attempts to resist.

But the liberal Democrats who dominate city government have a history of cooperation with organized labor, and council leaders have signaled they believe the measure has a good chance of passing. Without offering details, a spokesman said Mayor Eric Garcetti supports "building pathways to the middle class."

Previous "living wage" ordinances in Los Angeles have focused on narrower bands of the economy. Under a 1999 city law, employees at Los Angeles International Airport get at least $15.67 an hour. And workers at 13 hotels near the airport earn a minimum of $11.97, thanks to a 2007 ordinance.

The latest proposal — $15.37 — would apply to 87 hotels across the city and an estimated 10,000 employees, only some of whom are now unionized. Labor leaders hope it will be just the first step toward minimum pay hikes for many other workers.

"We would absolutely like to extend this to other industries," said Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the county Federation of Labor. The organization plans to unveil billboards Tuesday, in the form of faux Los Angeles city signs that say "City Limited" and "Poverty Wage Pop. 810,864."

The push on behalf of hotel workers epitomizes the issue's momentum nationally. A study last year showed the income divide between the upper 1% and the rest of America at its widest point since the 1920s. If minimum pay proposals in five states go forward this year, more than half the states — the most ever — would mandate pay higher than the federal minimum.

Polls show the increases usually are popular with the public and that makes them a preferred debating point for Democrats, who have been forced to defend themselves over the troublesome rollout of the national healthcare law. President Obama supports a Democratic proposal to raise the national minimum to $10.10 an hour (over two years) and recently called income disparities "the defining challenge of our time."

Hotel owners and their representatives intend, however, to mount stiff opposition to the Los Angeles proposal. They say a $15 minimum would trigger higher room rates and worker layoffs, as managements struggle to keep costs under control. The owners argue it's unfair to take a piecemeal approach to pay rules — singling out a few industries or geographic areas.

"It makes no sense to go … city by city and industry by industry," said Carol Schatz, head of the Central City Assn., which represents downtown Los Angeles business interests. "The hotel industry is the victim this time, but who is next: computer programmers, taxi drivers, restaurants? Where does it end?"

Unite Here Local 11 and a web of liberal groups called Raise L.A. are planning an array of actions and already have lined up support from 750 local business owners, who say higher wages will spur economic growth. Los Angeles activists believe their cause will be advanced if the public learns more about the challenges facing low-wage workers like those helping the Unite Here Local 11 campaign.

In a recent interview, one housekeeper for a pair of Los Angeles hotels described her days vacuuming, scrubbing toilets and changing linens on as many as 26 beds per shift. At one hotel, in Hollywood, she makes $8.25 an hour. At the other, in downtown Los Angeles, she earns almost twice as much — a union-negotiated $15.92.

When she doesn't draw enough hours at the downtown hotel and has to rely on the Hollywood job, the housekeeper said she struggles just to cover the $1,300 rent she owes on the South Los Angeles house that she shares with her husband and 9-year-old son.

"Many people don't understand how hard we are working," said the 51-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating her bosses. "At $15, we can make it. We can live just a little bit better, not drowning all the time."

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