The issue of how to address worker safety at local hotels has been a divisive one for the Long Beach City Council, most recently resulting in in a split room in which four councilmembers left chambers during a vote to require worker panic buttons at all area hotels. At issue that night was that the council had already voted to place another proposal meant to address hotel safety and work requirements, most commonly referred to as Claudia’s Law, on the November 6 ballot. That initiative would require hotels with 50 rooms or more to provide panic buttons to employees, but it would also create various workload restrictions at those hotels.
Now that a blanket panic button ordinance for all hotels is moving forward, the argument is whether the more extensive initiative on the ballot, Measure WW, is about protecting workers or if it is a vehicle by which to pressure hotels to unionize.
Claudia’s Law first came before the city council in September 2017, as a proposal put forth by Councilmembers Lena Gonzalez, Jeannine Pearce, Roberto Uranga and Rex Richardson. Their five colleagues, Councilmembers Suzie Price, Daryl Supernaw, Stacy Mungo, Dee Andrews and Al Austin, voted it down.
The council reviewed the proposal again in August after the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and Healthy Community, the Long Beach arm of the pro-labor nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), submitted signatures to place it on the ballot. The council could have adopted the policy outright, but chose instead to send it to the voters.
Now on the ballot as Measure WW, the proposal would cap the space roomkeepers clean in one eight-hour shift to 4,000 square feet, and require that workers are given 30-days notice regarding overtime. The measure exempts hotels that are unionized.
Asked how the 4,000 square foot figure was determined, Victor Sanchez, director of the Long Beach Coalition, said that he would have to get back to the Business Journal. He had not done so by press time. He did say, however, that “a lot of research” went into the creation of Measure WW.
Pearce provided a document to the Business Journal originally sent to councilmembers before they considered Claudia’s law in September 2017. The memo by union Unite Here Local 11 used average workloads at four downtown hotels – The Westin Long Beach, Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, Hyatt Regency Long Beach and Hyatt Centric The Pike Long Beach – to argue why “a daily workload of 4,000 square feet is reasonable.” The document noted that the average square feet cleaned by housekeepers in an eight-hour period ranged from 3,015 to 4,207. In the case of the Hyatt hotels, which are unionized, this data was collected from hotel management. In the case of the Westin and Renaissance, the average amount of space cleaned was determined with data provided by housekeeping employees.
“The protections in WW are well researched. The proposal is written by and informed by the experience of workers,” Sanchez said. “It has been a debate for over four years, and it is something that was not proposed in a quick fashion out of nowhere.”
Asked how he felt about the council’s 5-4 decision to create a panic button ordinance covering all hotels, Sanchez said he was focused on a campaign to ensure the passage of Measure WW. “For us, panic buttons are an important part of the solution, but abuse is far beyond what people are trying to make it seem. A panic button is not a panacea,” he said. However, he said, “I mean, it’s hard to be against panic buttons when it’s a part of what we’re advocating for, right?”
Hotel industry executives and representatives interviewed by the Business Journal support the blanket panic button ordinance, but take issue with Measure WW. Greg Keebler, general manager of the Hilton Long Beach, was one such executive. His hotel has provided panic buttons to employees for two and a half years, he noted.
“If we truly believe in Long Beach that there is an issue with housekeeper safety and security relative to harassment, why would we not make that [panic button ordinance] immediate and all inclusive, and not wrap it up in a package that is not designed to do that?” he asked. He posited that proponents of the ballot initiative were using the issue of worker safety to pass other unrelated measures.
Keebler said that the square footage cap on room cleaning during an eight-hour shift would mean that workers would have to be assigned fewer hours. “It’s clearly defined in that ordinance that [the cap] needs to be prorated if they are going to work less,” Keebler noted. “If someone has cleaned 3,800 square feet, they can’t take another room, because that will put them over and we’re not going to pay double time for the entire day to clean one more room. So it will mean reduced hours.”
Keebler said he expects Measure WW to cost his hotel $400,000 in 2019, if it passes. To accommodate the workload restrictions, he would have to hire 20 additional housekeepers. The restrictions in Measure WW “was not based upon any intelligence within the hotel community,” in his view.
Pam Ryan, general manager of the Renaissance Long Beach, said she would have to raise room rates to accommodate the cost of implementing Measure WW if it passes in November. “That makes us less competitive when it comes to the group rates that are out there from a citywide perspective and otherwise,” she said, referring to booking groups such as conventions or business meetings.
Imran Ahmed, general manager of the Long Beach Marriott, estimated that implementing Measure WW would cost his hotel anywhere between $300,000 to $500,000 per year.
Ahmed noted that the requirement to provide 30 days notice to employees regarding overtime “can’t work.” He explained that he offers overtime to scheduled employees when others unexpectedly call in sick – and you can’t predict when someone will be sick. “It’s not going to work. Can you tell me you’re going to be sick 30 days from now?” Ahmed, Keebler and Ryan all said that they do not require overtime, but offer it to employees to volunteer.
Ahmed called the panic button ordinance “a responsible decision.” He noted that his hotel has provided panic buttons to workers for the past two years. Ahmed said he was surprised that the four councilmembers who originally backed Claudia’s Law walked out of the city council chambers rather than voting on the panic button ordinance. “I thought they would embrace this with open arms because it is the safety and security which has been promulgated [by those councilmembers] in the past year and a half,” he said.
Mike Murchison, a hospitality industry consultant, sat in on the interview with Ahmed. “What message are we sending to those employees that work in a hotel or motel under 50 rooms?” he said. “That their safety doesn’t matter?”
A Divided Council
Second District Councilmember Pearce, who before joining the council in 2016 helped spearhead LAANE’s efforts in Long Beach related to Claudia’s Law, took issue with timing of the panic button ordinance proposal. She noted that it was added to the September 4 council agenda right before Labor Day weekend, which meant that many councilmembers did not see it until Monday or Tuesday that week.
Pearce also took issue with the fact that, while the five councilmembers who voted against Claudia’s Law had at the time argued that more needed to be done to study its impacts, the same councilmembers approved the creation of a panic button ordinance that she said had not been researched. “When I started talking about Claudia’s Law, I met with every single major hotel of 100 rooms or more and tried to talk to them about what a policy might look like. That to my knowledge was not done with any of the hotels that were 50 rooms or less,” she said. The original Claudia’s Law proposal was for hotels with 100 rooms or more.
Third District Councilmember Price said she had been working on the panic button proposal “for a long time,” noting that she had begun considering the issue when Claudia’s Law came to the council in September 2017. “If it’s really about panic buttons, then why don’t we just craft an ordinance or adopt a provision that requires panic buttons?” she wondered. “Why would we want to include things that in my opinion don’t have any sort of nexus to public safety?”
She added, “But I was really encouraged by some of my colleagues who were supporters of Claudia’s Law to really not interfere with the signature gathering process [for the ballot measure], and to allow the conversation to authentically unfold in terms of public outreach. . . . Out of respect for that process I really didn’t do anything in terms of bringing my item forward, which I had drafted.”
Pearce disagrees that the workload restrictions and safety measures should be separate issues. “They are both worker safety issues, I would argue. I would say that they are both in concert together,” she said, referring to Measure WW’s combined provisions for panic buttons and workload restrictions. “Women that work in an industry where they are knocking on bedroom doors by themselves deserve to be able to work at a pace where they are aware of their surroundings, where they can work not at a feverish pace, not at a pace where they don’t get to take bathroom breaks,” she explained.
Since Price and other councilmembers voted against Claudia’s Law in 2017, Price said they have consistently come up against a false narrative that they do not support women workers or public safety. In reality, Price said they voted against the initiative because “There was no nexus between the workload requirement and the union opt-out provision to public safety.”
Price continued, “I can understand them trying to say that the reason the measure failed was because councilmembers didn’t believe in supporting women in terms of public safety, but that’s baloney. It’s fake news. And I am not going to allow that narrative when I have dedicated my career to supporting victims of crime.” Price is a prosecutor and has served as a deputy district attorney for Orange County since 1999. In that time, she has handled many cases where she represented victims of sexual assault.
“I have sat across the table from hundreds of crime victims, looked them in the eyes and led them through the criminal justice process fighting for justice for them,” Price said. “So I am not going to allow any special interest to say public safety is not on the forefront of my mind in everything that I do.”
Price also took issue with the union opt-out in Measure WW. “It should be noted that I have no issues with collective bargaining and union membership,” she wrote in an e-mail following up on her interview with the Business Journal. “I’m the only person on the council who is actually a dues paying worker represented by a public employee collective bargaining association/union. I just don’t appreciate the deceptive strategy to connecting union membership to public safety.”
Price said she believes some proponents of Measure WW have adopted the narrative that she and other councilmembers don’t support worker safety because “it helps support the advocates of the desire to get the hotels to become unionized.”
Asked what she would say to opponents who argue that the opt-out for unionized hotels is an indication that that the ordinance is really about unionization rather than worker safety, Pearce replied, “I say that unions have always protected women.” She continued, “The fact that there is a union opt-out is an opportunity for workers in each hotel and sit down across the table from their manager and negotiate particular terms for that union – that hotel. . . . The American way is to have strong unions. A union is democratic. It allows people to pay a union due and to have a voice at the table with the boss, which is something that is very special.”
Pearce added, “Absolutely, WW is across the board about the workers and protecting women. And having a union contract is one way to do that.”
Pearce acknowledged that the Claudia’s Law debate has strained relations among the councilmembers.
“Honestly, this is the most political vote that has been in front of this council outside of the airport,” Pearce said, referring to the failed initiative to allow international flights out of Long Beach. “There are lobbyists, there are hotel managers, there is the chamber involved. Everybody is tugging and pulling and using it as a political opportunity.” She added, “It’s emotional for me when this item keeps coming up, which is why when we voted to put it on the ballot I was hopeful that it would be behind us and that we could all move on. But it feels like it’s a scab that we just keep picking at.”
Is The Panic Button Proposal Legal?
On September 12, lawyers for Unite Here Local 11 sent a letter to the city council, Mayor Robert Garcia and City Attorney Charles Parkin claiming that the proposal to create a panic button ordinance passed by the council days earlier was unlawful.
The firm McCracken, Stemerman & Holsberry LLP argued that the ordinance was tantamount to adopting a “near verbatim” portion of Measure WW. Doing so, the firm stated, was equivalent to picking and choosing “which parts of an initiative to adopt and which to send to voters,” a violation of election code.
But Parkin told the Business Journal he doesn’t think the firm has a case. “After we had done our research and looked at the cases and election codes they cited, we do not believe that this letter is accurate in that it prohibits us from moving forward with the type of ordinance that five councilmembers requested I prepare,” he said.
Parkin continued, “Anybody can sue anybody for anything any day. But I believe, and my response to the council will be, if asked, ‘I believe if they want to proceed with this ordinance we could successfully defend a challenge based on this letter.’”
The panic button ordinance five councilmembers voted to have Parkin create is different from provisions for panic buttons in Measure WW, he argued. Key is that the ordinance applies to all hotels, not just those with 50 rooms or more. “I think a court would allow our city council to do this,” he said.