By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted Soqui PENNY MOORE CAME to California 15 years ago because she was, as she puts it, “born in the wrong place,” a self-professed liberal living in a red state. But Moore had another reason to flee Bowling Green, Kentucky. As a waitress making $2.01 an hour, she never drew a paycheck during 10 years of work because taxes ate up every dime of her wages, forcing her to live off her tips.
“You worked other jobs, you worked double shifts, seven days a week,” she says in a slight Southern twang, explaining the rules of economic survival in a system that might be called compassionate slavery. She found California’s minimum-wage law an unbelievable godsend; before long she got a job as a drink server at Telly Savalas’ sports bar at the Sheraton Universal Hotel and, through her union’s credit union, was soon able to open a savings account and buy a car. Fifteen years later Moore is a bartender at the Sheraton and rents a place just up the road from work.
When Raul Ripoll came to L.A. in 1972, he got a bartending job on Eighth Street near Normandie.
“We used to live in that area when Eighth Street was Eighth Street,” he says with nostalgic pride. “Between Vermont and Western it was ‘the strip’ — nice and clean, with a lot of clubs and nightlife — Nat ‘King’ Cole had [one time] played that area.”
For four years Ripoll, a native of Mexico’s YucatÃ¡n Peninsula, was happy working for minimum wage and no benefits.
“Some of my customers were from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel who’d say, ‘Why don’t you work with us?” I said, ‘No, I like it here, the tips are good — I live two blocks from here, I walk to work!”
But when Ripoll’s first son was born prematurely, the father found himself on the wrong end of a hospital bill for nearly $30,000. In 1984, when his second son was also delivered early, he got a “back of the house” job as a union banquet worker at the Beverly Wilshire. It was a lucky move, for his younger son, Richard, was found to have been born with cerebral palsy — within six months of starting his new job, Ripoll and his family were covered by the union’s Kaiser health plan.
Today Moore is still at the Sheraton, bartending with benefits and protected by years of seniority. Yet she is still being offered nickels and dimes in the form of a wage-and-benefit package proposed by the Hotel Employers Council, with which its union, HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees), has been negotiating since March. (The Weekly has been told by sources close to the negotiations that a strike is imminent and could come as early as Friday.)
Ripoll explains that his industry’s workers are grouped under tipped or non-tipped categories.
“We asked that housekeepers and other non-tipped employees, who are the majority, get an increase of $2.75 per hour over two years. The companies are offering $2.15 in five years. For workers like waiters, who make most of their money in tips, we asked for a $1.50 per hour in two years; they’re offering 40 cents in five years and no increases for banquet employees like me. We also wanted a 30-cent-an-hour increase in two years for our pension — they’re offering 10 cents an hour in five years.”
TODAY PENNY MOOREis sitting in the lobby of her own piece of the American Dream, a tiny theater she runs on Lankershim Boulevard, but she is talking about the contract negotiations.
“They proposed a $10 a week medical co-pay,” she says. “Forty dollars a month may be cheap for some people, but it’s a lot for someone riding the bus making 9, 10 or even 11 dollars an hour with a family of four. We have a banquet server in his 70s who walks with a cane. He still works even though he’s getting a partial pension because he can’t live on it. He has to carry a tray with a minimum of 12 plates on it over his head, not because he wants to but because he doesn’t have a choice.”
As with most union contracts, wages lie at the heart of the negotiations between HERE and the nine hotels represented by the employers council (Regent Beverly Wilshire, Sheraton Universal, Millennium Biltmore, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Bonaventure, Wilshire Grand, Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, St. Regis and Westin Century Plaza). Still, HERE is also proposing a guarantee that immigrant workers not be fired but merely laid off (with seniority rights) if their work permits expire, and that employers set up programs to hire more African-Americans.
Steve Whitlock is one of relatively few blacks working in California’s hotel industry today.
“There was a time,” he says, “when the first person you saw at the door of a luxury hotel was an African-American. Today only 6.4 percent of hotel employees in L.A. are black.”
Whitlock, like Moore, is a native of Bowling Green, and has worked nearly six years as a houseman at the downtown Hyatt, a broadly defined job that involves supporting the housekeeping staff by bringing it supplies, shining shoes, sorting dirty linen and stripping the hotel’s floors. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 with a gospel singing group. Whitlock’s fondest memory of that time was when the singers appeared at Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel.