IN A CONTENTIOUS meeting, the Long Beach, California, city council on Oct. 23 took the first step toward passing a law that would require hotels in the city to provide employee safety devices or “panic buttons” to their workers.
The vote came just two weeks before city residents are set to vote on a ballot measure that would also require hotels to provide panic buttons but would include labor requirements hotel owners say would harm their business.
The California Hotel & Lodging Association supports the ordinance as an alternative to Measure WW, the referendum on the city’s Nov. 6 ballot that the group opposes as containing many of the same problems found in the now stalled California Assembly Bill 1761.
The Long Beach council voted 5-4 to declare the ordinance and give its first reading at the Oct. 23 meeting. A second reading will be held at the council’s next meeting, at which time other changes may be proposed. Then the law would take effect in a month.
Council members expressed concern not about the law itself so much as the timing of the vote being held before the vote on Measure WW and on a lack of outreach to hotels that would be affected by the ordinance.
“I feel very uncomfortable moving forward with an ordinance that would dictate something for those hotels with under 50 rooms,” Council member Jeannine Pearce said. “It is not appropriate for us to be voting on this before the election.”
Pearce also questioned why the measure does not include subcontractors, even though they are commonly employed by hotels in the city, and why it does not provide protection from retaliation. “We can pass the ordinance tonight, but if there’s not protection from retaliation we are not doing our housekeepers any good.”
Council member Rex Richardson agreed, saying the proposal has merit but the vote should be delayed until after the both the outreach and the election to avoid politicizing the effort to protect hotel workers.
Gary Hytrek with the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community also spoke in protest of the ordinance, saying the group opposes the law as a violation of the state’s Political Reform Act.
City Attorney Charles Parkin assured the council that was not the case. “We do not believe that the proposal that’s before you tonight is in any way illegal,” Parkin said.
Parkin said if the ballot measure passes it would take precedent over the ordinance as being more restrictive, but would apply only to hotels with 50 rooms or more.
“They can coexist, they do not conflict,” he said of the ordinances.
Council member Al Austin spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying, it ‘reflects the will of the entire council, and that is to provide better protection for the women in the hotel industry.”
CH&LA Secretary and Treasurer Bijal Patel said via email after the Long Beach vote that the association – and the hotel industry as a whole – is all for protecting hotel workers and supports the Long Beach proposal because it “truly focuses on addressing the employee safety initiatives the industry as a whole has been taking steps to address.”
On the other hand, CH&LA opposed the proposed ballot measure because it goes beyond the panic button measure and adds “costly” changes to labor conditions and wages, Patel said.
“The ballot measure also includes carve-outs for collective bargaining at hotels, which would effectively force a lot of properties to rethink their staffing programs,” he said.
Long Beach is not alone in proposing ballot measures for hotel workers in California. Oakland and Rancho Palos Verdes also have a vote scheduled in November. The proposals include requiring hotels to pay housekeepers double if they have to clean more than 4,000 square feet in a shift. The Rancho Palos Verdes measure also would set a $15-an-hour minimum wage for resort workers.
A recently released report commissioned by Long Beach from BAE Urban Economics that compared the city to Seattle, Chicago, Sacramento and Miami, where similar measures are already in place, found Measure WW would cause major damage to the local hotel industry because of the labor restrictions, according to the Long Beach Post.
The report found that at least 11 hotels in the city with 52 percent of the city’s hotel rooms already provided panic buttons to employees. However, current market conditions might prevent hotel operators from raising room rates to offset the cost of the measure’s labor conditions.
“The financial impact of the measure’s ‘humane workload’ standards will add significant operational costs to affected hotels,” the report says. “These standards are significantly more restrictive in the Long Beach ordinance than in Seattle, the closest comparable policy.”
In September, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, along with major companies such as Marriott International, InterContinental Hotels Group and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, announced the 5-Star Promise program that will provide panic button devices to hotel workers. Along with the new devices, the program will include training and polices aimed at preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault against hotel employees.
Patel said he expects the panic buttons to fast become an industry standard. “The employee safety device initiative is something you are going to see become mainstream very shortly, especially with the new AH&LA 5-Star Promise Program.”
The CH&LA officer said the association also expects the California legislature to make another attempt to pass a panic-button bill.
The group would support such an effort “as long as the bill truly focused on employee safety” and did not allow local laws to supersede state law, Patel said. “This would maintain a level playing field, address employee safety concerns, and also protect our membership from costly double investments to comply with both state and future local ordinances.”