“You just can’t devastate the working poor”
Last month, the Los Angeles The city council passed an ordinance that institutionalizes several protective measures for hotel workers: limits on the square footage that workers can be required to clean in a day; safety precautions against sexual harassment; overtime provisions; and an end to the hotel industry’s opt-in policy on daily room cleaning.
Together, these measures constitute a significant step forward for the rights of hotel workers. The ordinance was passed by a direct vote of the council, which opted to bypass a ballot referendum in November and put the new requirements into effect almost immediately.
Kevin de León, who represents the 14th arrondissement on the council, defended the measure saying, “Our city’s economy is built around the service industry, and hospitality workers are the backbone of the town. De León recently spoke with Capital & Main about his motivation to support the ordinance — and the growing responsibility of local government to oversee worker protection rules.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital & Main: What prompted you to get involved in this?
Kevin de Leon: We have had to deal with earthquakes and wildfires, civil unrest and severe economic recessions, but we have never in our lifetime faced a global pandemic that has brought us to our knees economically. And what happened to the hospitality workers was actually catastrophic, because they had over 90%, 95% unemployment. Many of them live in areas that were epicentres, ground zero for both the pandemic and death rates. So I think that’s why it was really essential that we do everything in our power to ensure the protection of these workers, mainly women, who have helped build this economy.
You also have a personal connection to the idea, don’t you?
Yes, my mother. My mom worked her fingers to the bone when I was growing up. She was primarily a housekeeper, but she also worked in hotels, and she struggled to make ends meet, pay the rent, and put food on the table for me. And many of these workers remind me, quite frankly, of my mother. They are the salt of the earth. The work they do is really very hard. And they deserve to be protected.
There’s also the notion of creating an atmosphere in which they can do more than just survive.
We need to create a path to the middle class. When we talk about bridges to the middle class, we often exclude these workers, mainly because they are women and they are immigrants, Latinos. But they deserve this path. It’s not just about “building back better”. These workers helped build this economy, and they are made to feel invisible, as consumable workers. They are not.
Hotels say limiting the amount of work workers can clean in a day and reverting to daily room cleaning will hurt their operations financially.
It was understandable when hotels and especially large chains implemented cost-cutting measures during the pandemic. One hundred percent. You will have no argument from me on that. But now that the economy is starting to open up and we continue with a large number of business travelers and tourists, it is frankly unconscionable to continue what was a pandemic measure as a saving device at the expense of workers poor. Everyone has the right to prosper, and that’s the business model, and I understand and respect that. But to say, hey, it’s working really well for us financially, why not codify it? No.
Have you been aware of this trend of local governments taking more responsibility for these types of worker protection issues? It used to be a federal government affair.
I don’t know if there has been a coordinated and calculated organization for the various local efforts across the country. But what I do know is that it reflects a lack of leadership at the federal level. Not much is happening, really, in Washington, DC – it’s become a sideshow in the American body politic. And I think when there is a lack of leadership, local government should be able to step in and set the rules. We clearly don’t want to be anti-business, because we want to make sure tourism and business travel are successful. We want them to come and we want them to spend their money. But it is a recognition that, if we are talking about building the middle class, it also starts with us.
With local government involvement, you mean?
We don’t dictate interest rates to the Fed. But in different ways we can try to grow this economy. It’s obvious. If you have people who are about to be evicted and join the new category of homeless people despite having worked all their lives, why would we stand there with our hands in our pockets? It is not a question of capital. This is the city of LA, isn’t it? Go on. We want the hospitality industry to succeed. These guys are going to make a profit, and we want them to make a profit. But you just can’t devastate the working poor.
Are you satisfied that the board voted to do it immediately and not postpone it to a November vote?
It’s my personal philosophy, which goes back to when I was in the [California State] Senate. I hated the idea of pushing things on a ballot initiative, no matter how tough the issues were, because I believe we are elected to make the tough decisions – not to delay it and ask voters to do it. . In this case, I don’t see it through the prism of management versus unions or unions versus management. I see it through an economic prism: what can we do to help revitalize, help create bridges to the middle class? Many of these workers, let’s be honest, are ignored because they are not white. But without them, this economy is wiped out, and we need to recognize that and act on it.
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