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Fair Pay

When you’re staying at the Santa Monica Doubletree Hotel, you just might want to step out of your $189-a-night ocean-view suite now and then. Don‘t worry about the soggy towels on the bathroom floor or the wastebasket holding yesterday’s newspapers. You‘re the guest. Enjoy. Pop in to the 4th Street Grille downstairs, where you can have a plate of prosciutto and melon ($9.95) for openers, followed by, say, the tasty lamb chop au poivre ($21.95). Or just settle into a soft armchair in the hotel’s airy main lobby and take in the eight-story blond-wood atrium and eye-catching art-deco banisters.

Here‘s the best part. When you get back to your room, everything will be spit and polished. Your housekeeper -- the maid or the cleaning lady, for those who aren’t familiar with the prosaic terminology of the hotel industry -- will have vacuumed the carpet, scrubbed the sink and toilet, stretched clean sheets on the bed so tight you can bounce a quarter on it, removed any trace of a fingerprint on the mirrors and done a few dozen other things to make the room as spiffy as the day you got there.

The housekeeper in this instance might be Flora Andrade, 41, a calm, bespectacled woman who, by the end of the day, has the slogging demeanor of a battle-weary infantryman. The Guatemalan-born Andrade, who has worked for the Doubletree for almost seven years, lives in a $400-a-month apartment in South Los Angeles with her three sons and her mother. She and her family have never had the lamb au poivre. In fact, when she gets home at night, Andrade is so tired after cleaning her daily quota of 14 hotel suites that she can barely muster enough energy to rustle up the family‘s usual diet: beans or potatoes with eggs.

It’s Andrade and her fellow service workers in the Santa Monica hotel industry who stand to be the prime beneficiaries should Measure JJ pass on November 5. The so-called living-wage proposition seeks to use the heft of city investments to raise the hourly wage of service workers to between $10.50 and $12.25 an hour, depending on whether health benefits are included. The idea is that large businesses along the coastal commercial corridor of Santa Monica have benefited not only from about $180 million in public-works and redevelopment funds but, in the case of the hotels, from their status as a monopoly. Twelve years ago, Santa Monica voters decided to put a lock on more hotel development in the area. So, say proponents of JJ, let the working poor get some of the largess.

The “sueldo digno,” as Andrade calls the living wage, has been in the Santa Monica hopper for more than four years. Vivian Rothstein, director of Santa Monicans for Responsible Tourism (SMART), which is spearheading the Yes on JJ campaign, says she and others got the idea when they discovered that workers in luxury hotels were lining up at local food banks because they weren‘t making enough to make ends meet.

“When there are two parents working full time and the family is still below the poverty level -- that’s not just,” Rothstein says. “Something‘s wrong.”

Despite Santa Monica’s reputation as the prototype for progressive municipalities everywhere, it‘s not quite on the cutting edge in this case. The living wage has been around in one form or another for eight years, and more than 80 cities or counties, including Los Angeles, already have it. The difference here is that Santa Monica is the first to try to dictate a living wage to employers who aren’t under contract with local government. The estimated 47 businesses affected by JJ, each of them grossing at least $5 million a year, don‘t work for the city. But the city, using vast redevelopment resources to make it easy to do business, has worked big time for them, or so goes the pro-JJ thinking. The hotels, which charge as much as $400 a night for a room, and other businesses should pay a little back.

It has been a rough, combative campaign. There’s history there. Two years ago, as the Santa Monica City Council tried to craft a living-wage ordinance, the beachfront hotels came up with their own version. Proposition KK, as it was called, used all the seductive rhetoric of social progressivism, but it was in fact a cunning attempt to pre-empt the council from taking any future action on the living wage. The measure was handed an overwhelming defeat by the discerning Santa Monica electorate. Then, after the City Council finally approved its own living-wage measure, the hotels and their allies successfully petitioned to have it put on the ballot. That‘s Measure JJ.

The cast of characters here remains roughly the same. Proponents of JJ are led by the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a small social-action group that led the effort for Los Angeles’ living wage. The opponents, under the banner of FAIR (Fighting Against Irresponsible Regulation) are once again dominated by the big hotels, which have raised most of the $1.8 million that FAIR has thrown at the issue in two years. The Employment Policies Institute, a lobbying arm of the large restaurant chains and a partisan in numerous living-wage battles around the country, provides them with a theoretical basis for the campaign -- the hair-raising predictions about ways the living wage will devastate Santa Monica. And running the campaign once again is the Dolphin Group, a Westwood-based consultant firm specializing in conservative causes. It was the Dolphin Group that, among other things, helped to sink Michael Dukakis‘ 1988 presidential bid with the famous Willie Horton ads, which exploited racial fears. a

 

The battle has been waged on two levels: on the sidewalks and in the halls of academia. If anything, the “battling economists,” the academicians who are weighing in on either side, have been more contentious than the sidewalk soldiers. Rick Sander, the UCLA law professor who has become the anti-JJ coalition’s leading pistolero, accuses economists on the other side of being shills for any living-wage measure that passes through the neighborhood, and they in turn berate him for his “dishonest” or “ad hominem” attacks.

“It‘s an Excedrin headache,” Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, a leader of the Yes on JJ group, says of the academic debate.

In a nutshell, Sander, much of whose first report was financed by the Employment Policies Institute, says the measure will traumatize local businesses, sending some from profitability into red ink, and it will devastate the city itself, which will have to pick up the tab for millions of dollars in administrative expenses and losses in property and sales taxes. Besides, Sander contends, the prime beneficiaries of JJ will not be the working poor but comfortably middle-class workers. “It’s a lot less efficient than shoving money out of a helicopter over L.A.,” Sander says.

Robert Pollin and Mark Brenner, the two University of Massachusetts economists commissioned by the city to study the measure‘s possible effects, concede that there will be some fallout from JJ: the loss of as few as three dozen jobs and a possible expense to the city of about $2.4 million in raises to city workers and administrative costs. But it dramatically raises the living standard for 2,000 workers, 85 percent of whom are members of the working poor, say Pollin and Brenner, in a report that was vetted by two prominent economic experts in the field and endorsed by 118 economists.

“By any reasonable measure, these are people who aren’t meeting basic needs,” Brenner says. “That‘s not what I call middle-class by any definition.”

Proponents say the predictions of shuttered businesses are grossly exaggerated. Still, the City Council has toned down JJ in response to criticisms, raising the cutoff level for employers from an annual gross of $3 million to $5 million. That takes all but one restaurant out of play (reportedly, Broadway Deli) and reduces the total number of businesses affected from 72 to 47. There’s now also a hardship clause, allowing businesses to apply for exemptions. “It‘s not as if we’re being wild-eyed radicals here,” Rothstein says.

It‘s not clear who’s winning the asphalt-level war. There‘s a phantom quality to FAIR’s door-to-door campaign, which pro-JJ people call a classic “Astroturf” effort. FAIR lists its headquarters at an address on Wilshire Boulevard that turns out to be a mail drop. Spokesmen for the group claim they have a battalion of bellboys, waiters and housekeepers pushing opposition to JJ in Santa Monica‘s neighborhoods and manning phone banks. But none was made available for interviews.

One Santa Monica woman says she got a call from a member of the opposition. “She said she wanted to give me three reasons not to vote for JJ,” recalls Betty Mueller. “I said, ’Where are you calling from?‘ and she said, ’Texas.‘ I said, ’What do you know about this?‘ and she said, ’I‘ll let you talk to my supervisor.’ Then she hung up.”

The Santa Monica Alliance To Protect the Living Wage, on the other hand, is a lively, garrulous presence in the neighborhoods. At its headquarters on Colorado Boulevard, a crowd of about 30 hotel workers, mostly Latinos, gathers for daily motivational meetings, then heads for the streets. On the wall is a chart showing a pyramid with the number 15,000 at the top. That‘s the number of “yes” commitments that will ensure passage of JJ. Last week, the hotel workers were about halfway there. The big challenge will be getting people to the polls in a year in which the gubernatorial race has been a big turnoff for voters, says field coordinator Roxana Tynan. “Low turnout hurts us,” she says. “The people who always vote tend to be older and more conservative.”

 

On a canvassing run with Rocio Rojas, a union shop steward who buses dishes at a local restaurant, the going was rough. Trudging from building to building in a neighborhood of small apartment houses in the eastern part of the city, Rojas spent most of her time trying to persuade people through the buildings’ intercom systems. “My name is Rocio and I‘m a worker,” she says. “I’d like your support for the living wage to help the workers.”

“The living way?” sputtered one impatient apartment dweller through the speaker.

Judging by the responses of voters in the Vons parking lot on Lincoln Boulevard and Broadway the other day, JJ hasn‘t caught fire one way or the other yet. “Them hotels get $300 a night,” said one grizzled resident, who wouldn’t give his name. “The workers deserve more.” But many still didn‘t know what the measure was.

Andrade, who makes $9.95 an hour (actually more than most housekeepers, who can earn as little as $7.15), is not amused at being considered part of the comfortable middle class. She recently gave up her medical insurance, after Doubletree raised the employee share of the premium, even though her 6-year-old son has a partially blocked artery in his heart. She’s still making $300-a-month payments on her 1987 Nissan, and with three boys in the family, two of them teenagers, there‘s always some pressing need, she says. “I tell them I can only buy for one of them from each paycheck,” she says. The little one’s $10 sneakers fell apart after a month of wear and tear.

Andrade brings in about $350 a week when the hotel is busy, but her paycheck is often tied to the occupancy rate. When things are slow, she gets a call not to come in. If a guest stays in his room, not letting Andrade in to clean, she gets docked a half-hour‘s pay. For a while, she had a once-a-week job cleaning a family’s home, but lost that after her hotel schedule was changed.

When she gets home at night, she says, after an hour-and-a-half drive each way, “I‘m too tired to play with my little boy.”

What would she do with the extra money if JJ passes?

“More things for the children,” Andrade says without hesitation. “More food. Mas huevitos. More eggs.”


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