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Harsh Holidays

Southern California tourism workers -- many facing a bleak holiday season on meager unemployment checks or public assistance -- got some small presents in the past two weeks, and rallied to protest a congressional measure that magnified their post-911 pain. While tens of thousands of displaced hotel, restaurant and airport workers may have little under their trees this year, they can at least keep their Christmas lights blazing -- and their heat and water on -- under a plan developed by L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn‘s Economic Impact Task Force.

The two-pronged utility-relief program announced Friday aids workers who lost half or more of their work hours in the tourism downturn. Department of Water and Power bills would be cut 15 percent to 50 percent (according to need) for one year -- and six months of those reduced bills could be deferred without late charges. Approval from L.A.’s City Council and the Water and Power Commission is pending, but no significant roadblocks are expected, says Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is shepherding its passage. Supplementing the city‘s concessions, Southern California Gas Co. will allocate $100,000 in one-time $100 gas-bill credits to displaced workers on a first-come, first-served basis, keeping 1,000 families warm through the winter. For the thousands more needing help, the Gas Co. will publicize its 20 percent low-income-assistance rate reduction.

Meanwhile, spurred by fears that hotels may replace furloughed staffers (especially union activists) with new hires at lower pay, the Santa Monica City Council moved to block such actions. Union organizers say some of their outspoken supporters have been abruptly laid off and fear they will not be rehired when conditions stabilize. Housekeeper and banquet assistant Luz Estrada was laid off from Loews beachside hotel, a focus of the union’s organizing drive this year. Estrada has been seeing a doctor weekly for a job-related hand injury, she says, but health benefits ran out October 31: ”I need my job back, but there‘s no promises.“

”These are difficult times for the tourism industry,“ says Maria Elena Durazo, president of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union Local 11. ”That does not mean that workers should be kicked out so they can be replaced at lower wages.“

The worker-retention ordinance mandates notification of the former job holder when a position becomes open. The first of its kind in the nation, it eked out passage on a 4-3 vote. ”Many of these workers have devoted years of service to our hospitality industry,“ says Mayor Michael Feinstein. ”When the president says freedom is under attack, people exercising their freedom to organize shouldn’t be targeted.“

Airport baggage screeners and supporters gathered Friday to protest the undeserved lump of coal Congress put in their stockings -- the Aviation and Transportation Security Act -- terminating hundreds of noncitizens and forcing others to vie for their current jobs with new applicants. The act‘s citizenship requirement for screeners makes no sense, especially when there’s no such policy for pilots, flight attendants or other airport workers, said Javier Gonzalez of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents employees at several LAX security services. One of the requirement‘s prospective victims, Jeimy Gebin, served three years in the U.S. Army as an E-4 specialist at Fort Stewart although she is a citizen of El Salvador. Since mustering out, she’s been screening for American Airlines, but, she noted bitterly, Congress now considers her unfit to serve America in a civilian capacity.

San Diego Congressman Bob Filner will ask for reconsideration of the ban next year. In the meantime, its opponents asked for protest calls to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

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