Measure WW, a ballot initiative that created safety and workload regulations for hotel workers in Long Beach, is now the subject of a lawsuit filed against the city by the California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA). The measure, which has a turbulent history and perhaps equally tempestuous future, was approved by voters in November 2018.

The complaint, which the city was officially served with on Tuesday, January 5, according to City Attorney Charles Parkin, alleges that voters didn’t have the right to implement workplace rules, as this infringes on the authority of the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal OSHA) to regulate workplace safety.

Members of the Unite HERE labor union are pictured protesting labor conditions at a Long Beach hotel in 2016. In the following year, the union and workers continued to advocate for workplace regulations, ultimately succeeding when voters approved Measure WW in November 2018. (File photograph)

The measure limits the floor space to be serviced by each worker to 4,000 square feet per eight-hour workday, requiring employers to pay workers twice the regular daily rate if workers exceed their daily limit. It also requires employers to receive written consent from employees for any overtime, which is defined as exceeding 10 hours in a workday, and to inform workers of their right to decline working overtime. Records of each worker’s wages, hours, square footage cleaned and overtime consent must be kept for at least two years.

In terms of sexual assault and harassment prevention, the measure requires employers to provide workers with paid time to contact the police, a counselor, or other advisor in the case of any alleged incident and the right to be assigned a different area for the remainder of an allegedly threatening guest’s stay. The measure, which applies to all hotels with 50 or more rooms unless covered by a bargaining agreement, also requires hotels to provide workers with electronic contact devices, often referred to as panic buttons.

If the lawsuit is successful, it might provide a template to combat similar measures in other cities, such as Oakland’s Measure Z. Lynn Mohrfeld, president and chief executive officer of CHLA, said the association has no current plans to take legal action against Oakland, but might in the future. “It was a little more complex, so we wanted to initiate litigation in Long Beach first, and we’re going to look at Oakland next,” Mohrfeld said.

Measure WW’s workload-related items closely resemble elements of a 2012 proposal by the Unite HERE labor union to add workload requirements to the state’s occupational health and safety standards made to Cal OSHA, which the agency ultimately rejected.

Cal OSHA has since established a set of workplace safety regulations designed to address the needs of hotel workers as a special group within the service sector, which went into effect on July 1, 2018. The agency’s “Hotel Housekeeping Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention” orders included requirements for employers to provide informational materials on injury prevention, review injuries to identify health hazards, perform annual worksite evaluations, and provide annual health and safety hazard training specific to housekeeping tasks, as well as record keeping requirements.

Mohrfeld argued those regulations, combined with industry-driven initiatives and a Long Beach ordinance requiring panic buttons approved in October 2018, provided sufficient tools and guidance to ensure a safe work environment for hotel staff. “As far as I know, every hotel in Long Beach has panic buttons,” Mohrfeld said. “The other parts of WW are covered by other laws and are unnecessary.”

Rules put in place by Measure WW, Mohrfeld argued, have done more harm than good for hotel workers. “They are no longer, effectively, eligible for overtime,” he said, explaining that the square footage limitations included in the measure make overtime more expensive. Workers are entitled to double pay for the entire day once they clean more than the maximum square footage allowed. He added that this put an end to a common practice among workers to help out fellow staffers whose rooms needed more work, because the entire room would be counted towards each worker’s daily square footage limit.

The workload limitations may also have an adverse effect on the benefits full-time workers are entitled to, Mohrfeld said. “Some of these housekeepers can get done with their rooms in five to six hours, and when that happens, that puts them below the threshold for a full-time employee – and therefore their health benefits are in jeopardy,” he explained. “If they can’t get benefits at a Long Beach hotel, they’re going to go to another municipality to go get those benefits.”

CHLA’s lawsuit targets the entire measure, but Mohrfeld said the workload requirements constituted the heart of the problem, from a legal standpoint. “Implementation, in my discussions with the hoteliers in the area, means different things to different hotels and we know that’s going to be a legal issue further down the road,” he explained.

The regulations included in the measure first came to the city council on September 19, 2017, in the form of an ordinance proposal authored by 1st District Councilmember Lena Gonzalez. Councilmembers failed to approve the regulations as a city ordinance, and left it up to voters to decide on the matter.

During the council’s discussion of the proposal in 2017, 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price raised concerns about the cost of potential litigation, referencing a similar ordinance that spurred a lawsuit in the Bay Area. In 2006, Woodfield Suites Hotel, LLC, sued the City of Emeryville, alleging that the voter-approved Measure C, which included minimum wage requirements and workload limitations, was unconstitutional.

“Lawsuits are common, so that’s certainly not a deterrent from us engaging in good policy, but I’m just asking the question,” Price told City Attorney Charles Parkin. Parkin said according to information his office received from Emeryville, the city spent $750,000 on the four-year litigation. The measure remained in place following a settlement between the two parties in 2010.

Parkin said his office was unable to comment on the current litigation at this point. Councilmembers Gonzalez and Pearce, the measure’s most vocal supporters on the council, did not respond to a request for comment.