Unite Here, A Hotel Workers’ Union, Proposes LA Ordinance That Could Endanger Employees and Guests

Screenshot 2023 10 24 at 2.28.16 PM

Unite Here is a union that ostensibly is meant to represent the concerns of hotel workers. However, in a dispute involving hotels in Los Angeles, the union seems to be siding against its members’ concerns, argues Chip Rogers, the president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in a recent op-ed.

“Unite Here wants to force all LA hotels to house homeless people next to paying guests,” wrote Rogers.

“It is hard to imagine a better way to put hotel workers in danger and destroy LA’s tourism industry. In 2020, nearly 25% of Los Angeles County’s adult homeless population had ‘severe mental illnesses,’ while 27% had a ‘long-term substance use disorder,’ according to Stanford University.

“These statistics explain why hotel job losses will be catastrophic if Unite Here succeeds in turning all LA hotels into homeless shelters. Who will want to work or stay at an LA hotel when doing so comes with enormous safety risks?”

The proposed policy necessitates hotels to disclose vacant room numbers daily, which would then be allocated to homeless individuals by the city. These individuals would not only be provided with a room but also have access to the hotels’ facilities. Rogers highlights significant concern among hotel staff and guests about safety.

“The physical safety of hotel workers and guests must be our primary concern, and it’s incredible the union would want to place its own members in this volatile situation.”

A Checkered Policy History

Other city and state governments have tried similar policies to address a homeless crisis. While there have been some success stories, these policies have also been criticized for causing millions of dollars in damage, endangering hotel employees and the surrounding community, and lacking foresight into a tractable long-term solution.

In 2021, the city of Austin, Texas, purchased an entire Candlewood Suites hotel for $9 million, planning to turn the building into a homeless shelter. But in 2022, the building was heavily vandalized before renovations could take place. The hotel was stripped of copper, its doors and windows were broken, and equipment such as washers, dryers, air conditioning systems, and televisions were stolen or destroyed. Residents of the neighborhood where the building is located have expressed grave concern for the downstream effects of the project on safety in their community.

When she took office in 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared the homelessness crisis a state of emergency, and she has called for $1.3 billion to address the crisis. Part of this budget included Project Roomkey, which provided temporary housing in city hotels with the goal of reducing the number of unhoused people on the streets, and providing an opportunity to access mental health care and pursue long-term housing.

But this goal hasn’t been easy to achieve, with reported incidents of property damage and altercations at Project Roomkey hotels.

In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that the city had quietly paid $11.5 million in damages to the Mayfair Hotel after individuals housed in the hotel through Project Roomkey “threatened staff, security, [and] destroyed property.”

“Challenges related to homelessness, such as mental illness and drug dependency, are serious and need to be addressed. But those issues are best left to social workers, medical personnel, and other professionals who have been trained to deal with these unique hardships,” wrote Rogers.

“Thanks to Unite Here, however, these problems will be left to hotel workers to solve. The union successfully pushed for a ballot initiative that will require LA residents to decide in March whether to turn all LA hotels into homeless shelters. If passed, hotels will be forced to house homeless people next to paying guests without any social services or medical support from the city or elsewhere.”

Hotel Workers’ Concerns

The ballot measure, known as the Responsible Hotels Ordinance and brought forth by the Unite Here Local 11 chapter, doesn’t seem to have the support of the broader community.

Rogers noted that, in a poll commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 98% of LA residents agreed that homelessness is a problem, but 86% disagreed with prioritizing housing homeless people in hotels as a means of solving that problem.

Unite Here Local 11, which represents over 30,000 hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona, is asking hotels to publicly endorse the ordinance, but hotel leadership has balked at the idea, citing safety concerns. They’ve also voiced concerns that the policy would discourage guests from staying at hotels because of similar safety concerns, leading to declining business and potential job losses in the industry.

According to an AHLA poll, the broader community is largely in agreement with this sentiment. It found that 71% of respondents were concerned about the safety risks to hotel staff if the policy were enacted, and 72% of respondents said that forcing hotels to “house homeless people next to paying guests” would deter them from booking a hotel room in Los Angeles.

Additionally, 75% of those polled were concerned that the ordinance ignores the root causes of homelessness, and 74% said they’re concerned that it fails to address the long-term housing needs of the unhoused.

Speaking to hoteldive.com, Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, New York, who studies homelessness, explained, “Vacant hotel rooms can provide a readily available and relatively safe and private space for unhoused people to stay,” but she echoed concerns about the long-term effectiveness of this sort of approach.

“Hotel rooms are not a long-term solution to homelessness. A hotel room is not a permanent home.”

Bowen argued that it would be more effective to invest in permanent housing, such as apartments with supportive services for unhoused individuals, coupled with investment in affordable housing in general. She noted that this more long-term-oriented approach is “critical to ending homelessness.”

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