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On the Edge

Jose Avelar, a steward at Santa Monica’s luxury Loews hotel, has worked a total of 13 hours these past three weeks, earning a little more than $125. He usually brings home about $400 a week for his wife and four children. Last week brought a car-repossession warning and another notice that gave him three days to come up with the rent. In a crisis like this, Avelar would normally turn to relatives, but his father, also a steward at Loews‘ beachside neighbor Le Merigot, was laid off as well.

It could be worse: Some workers -- like Pacific Shores housekeeper Soledad Garcia -- have earned nothing this month as half-empty hotels suffer from travel anxiety, fed by the latest FBI terrorism warnings, and lay off hundreds of employees.

Avelar and Garcia were among the nearly 1,000 tourism workers who came for help last week at three emergency-relief sites opened by Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) locals. Two months ago, the union was entirely focused on its living-wage campaign, and winning voter approval in November 2002 to increase hourly wages to $10.50 for hotel and service workers in the Santa Monica tourist zone. The economic slide, which has put some 4,000 HERE members out of work, probably means the outcome will affect a lot fewer workers. All of a sudden, the union is spending much of its time trying to help distressed workers and is collaborating with United Way, community groups and the state Employment Development Department (EDD).

Last week, about half of those who came for help had been laid off, union staffer Susan Minato estimates, and half were working reduced hours such as two days a week. Most of those served were union members, but other tourism workers weren’t turned away. With national dues payments down by about one-third since September 11, HERE is in no position to provide cash to its needy members. Union president John Wilhelm has taken a 20 percent pay cut and reduced the national staff by 20 percent.

Longer-range aid, online job listings and unemployment-benefit advice were available from EDD, but the center could offer only partial aid to people like Avelar -- groceries (up to nine meals, depending on family size), utility payments if cutoffs were imminent, and $100 to $300 from United Way toward rent to forestall evictions. Avelar maxed out on food and got $200 toward the landlord‘s $675; more help with rents might come through matching funds from housing agencies, advises Carmen Montoya of AFL-CIO.

With retail relief so sparse, union leaders are now looking to Washington, D.C., for wholesale assistance, joining -- in this era of unprecedented unity -- with the foe they usually face across the bargaining table. Alongside CEOs of the Marriott, Loews and Starwood hotel chains, labor lobbyists are pressing Congress for tourism-industry support, says Tom Snyder at HERE’s D.C. headquarters. Both sides would benefit from a short-term payroll-tax holiday, he says. Labor‘s priority is federal payment of health-care fees; increasing unemployment benefits is another top need.

While not as hard hit as Washington, New York or the Bay Area, Los Angeles -- like Boston and Las Vegas -- is in the second tier of fallout, with around 30 percent layoffs in its tourism sector, say union researchers.

Local union leadership is asking national unions for $500,000 to help unemployed brothers and sisters and is hoping that labor-friendly (if newly cash-strapped) state officials will respond to their plight. County labor federation head Miguel Contreras is calling on Governor Gray Davis to convene the Legislature into special session to respond to the tourism crash.

At an Assembly hearing Monday, Contreras called for job-retraining funds, extending unemployment-coverage periods and redirecting state Tourism Board advertising to in-state travelers. The Santa Monica City Council asked Davis to expedite unemployment benefits.

The Santa Monica relief center operates from 1 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays at 3102 Third St. Two other centers open Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 321 S. Bixel St., downtown, and 4634 W. Imperial Highway near LAX. To make donations, call (310) 451-9703.


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