Hotel Workers in Long Beach a Step Closer to a Living Wage

  • 05/25/2012
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Kevin Walker, Editorial Intern and Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor

While the Press-Telegram honored its Amazing Women inside the non-union Hilton Long Beach hotel, Sept. 15, 2011, the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and Healthy Community paid tribute to women activists a few feet from the Hilton’s doorway. Photos by Zamna Avila

On at least five days per week, Martina De Santiago drives from  her rented home in Inglewood to her job as a lobby attendant. at the Hilton Long Beach.

Her job includes cleaning public areas, the bathroom, the executive meeting center, and making sure guests have clean towels in the exercise rooms and pool areas.  When she started working at the Hilton 10 years ago, her starting hourly wage was $7.25. Today, she earns $10.70.

“I find  (the $10.70)  to be very little in 10 years that I have (at the Hilton),” said De Santiago, in Spanish. “I am somewhat making a living. I only make enough to cover what I need to cover (in expenses).”

After paying her utilities, insurance, part of the monthly $1,400 rent she splits with her three sons and at least $60 a week in gas, she is left with barely anything.

“But (my coworkers and I) are there because we are accustomed to the place; one knows the people, the job,” De Santiago, 47, said. “Though on more than one occasion we’ve been told, ‘If you are not comfortable here, you can leave.’

“A dignified wage; we don’t want to earn a fortune.”

She and other hotel workers recently gathered more than 30,000 signatures in about six weeks in order to qualify a city ordinance on the November ballot, that if passed, hotels with more than 100 rooms would be required to pay employees at least $13 an hour and provide a minimum of five days of paid sick leave.  

On May 22, the Long Beach city council voted 8-0 to put the proposed ordinance before voters in November.

The decision was lauded by supporters who qualified the ordinance earlier in the month when they submitted 30,000 signed petitions to the city clerk’s office.

“I’m very happy about the outcome today,” said Romeo Trinidad, a Long Beach Hilton employee of 11 years. “I’m very confident

because of the strong community support. We feel it. We saw it.”

If voters decide to enact the proposed ordinance, workers like Trinidad, who makes 10.70 an hour, will see a substantial rise in wages, which have often failed to keep pace with inflation.

Restless supporters of the ordinance packed the city hall chambers and were audibly annoyed when Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal announced the living wage ordinance agenda item was moved to the end of the docket. After an hour and a half of sitting through the tedious business of Long Beach city government, the eager crowd got its chance for public comment.

“I would like to respectfully urge you as civil servants to do the bidding of the citizens who reside here, vote here, and pay taxes here,” said Erin Foley, a resident of the Second District. “We citizens say this is not too much to ask … for these highly profitable businesses … to be responsible for paying their hard working, under compensated workers a living wage because they [the hotels] are highly subsidized through tax abatements and other mechanisms provided by the city.”

Advocates of the proposed ordinance have long argued that the larger downtown hotels like Hyatt and Hilton benefit from friendly city policies meant to attract business, but have failed to disperse profits to workers in a fair manner.

This unfairness, they say, has forced many full time hotel workers onto state assistance just to make ends meet. A raise in their pay will shift this burden, they believe, from taxpayers to the hotel companies that employ them.

“These ordinances … decrease health care costs to the taxpayers, because now you have healthier workers who can afford their own healthcare,” Dr. Merna Terkos Donahoe, a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Labor Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills said.

They also claim  that other cities in California that have passed higher minimum wages than required by the state have seen other, less tangible benefits to the community such as reduced absenteeism in schools.

More tangible, supporters say, are the additional revenues a living wage ordinance will bring into Long Beach, as hotel workers who reside in the city will be able to spend more money on local goods and services.

“When you think about keeping money in our community, that’s done through paying folks who have to spend that money … But if a company is making record profits and making tons of money that’s going to folks who have the ability to put it in a bank,” said Ben Fisher, a resident of the Second district.

This sentiment is shared by hotel workers, who feel that the companies they work for have used profits largely for purposes of corporate expansion rather than increased wages for their employees.

Advocates for the living wage ordinance stress that it is simply meant to make the day to day life easier for hotel workers, and that Long Beach’s high cost of living makes a $13 an hour wage a necessity.

“If you look at what it actually takes to live in Long Beach, to eat in Long Beach, the minimum wage is not going to cut it. The living wage is what you need to provide for yourself,” said Christine Petite member of the Steering Committee for the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and Healthy Communities. “What we are really talking about is $2,000 a month. It’s not very much.”

Calls were made to the general managers of both the Hilton Long Beach and the Long Beach Hyatt Hotel, two of the largest hotels in the city, but neither returned calls to  reporters.

While the Press-Telegram honored its Amazing Women inside the non-union Hilton Long Beach hotel, Sept. 15, 2011, the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and Healthy Community paid tribute to women activists a few feet from the Hilton’s doorway. Photos by Zamna Avila

Representatives from the hospitality industry were silent at the meeting, however several speakers voiced their support for a delay in order for the council to commission a third party report to assess the impacts of the proposed ordinance.

Mike Murchison, a local lobbyist and consultant, admonished council members for their quick decision to place the unaltered proposal up for a November vote.

“This is not just the impact to the hotels, in my opinion, this is an impact to your general fund…you’re willing to spend $430,000 to put this on the November ballot, spend a couple dollars and get a report back.” He continued, “You all should have at least have a fairly balanced, educated position on what this means.”

These reservations were not shared, however, by the cheering crowd that gathered outside of city hall after the council’s vote. Though the council’s vote might be viewed as procedural, given that the proponents gathered the qualifying signatures that were required, the vote and their presence at the council were viewed as steps in the right direction.

“For me it was important to go so that the council would see the people, to show them we really are interested in having the proposal become law,” De Santiago said.

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