‘More work in fewer hours’: LA’s hotel workers detail backbreaking conditions | Los Angeles

Thousands of southern California hotel workers have gone on strike over the holiday weekend, pushing for better wages in one of the most expensive metro areas in the US.

About 15,000 cleaners, cooks, cloakroom attendants, front desk agents, bellmen, servers and dishwashers were picketing across Los Angeles and Orange counties. During one of the busiest tourist weekends in the region, workers are demanding wage increases amid a spiraling cost-of-living crisis in the region.

Jose Luis Zepeda, 74, was protesting outside the LA Grand Hotel, where he has been working as a cook. “Everything has been going up,” he said. “The cost of insurance, gas, household expenses.”

Zepeda, who has worked in the hotel industry for more than 40 years, moved east to Victorville a few years back because he couldn’t afford to live in LA. Now he drives two hours to get to work – and he’s not the only one. A survey by Unite Here Local 11 found that 53% of workers had moved in the past five years, or were planning to move due to rising housing costs.

The union is demanding a $5 hourly wage increase immediately, plus a $3 bump each year for 2024 and 2025. It is also asking for affordable healthcare, better pensions and safe workloads. Hotels have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to cut staffing levels and increase workloads, workers say.

Zepeda said he tried retiring, but came back to work – “because I want to, I’m not sick, I have no reason not to,” he said – and he wanted to continue to support his family.

So far, the union’s biggest employer, the Westin Bonaventure, has reached an agreement with striking workers, agreeing to wage increases as well as providing affordable health insurance at less than $20 a month, and increases in pension contributions. The deal, which was reached a day before workers went on strike, also addressed workload issues and adopted a policy against the use of a federal system for checking employment eligibility, which imperils immigrant workers.

“Now all of these other hotels need to do the same – and just sign the agreement,” said Maria Hernandez, a communications director at the union.

Talks between the union and a coalition of 40 other hotels have stalled. The coalition is offering a $2.50 hourly wage increase over the next 12 months, and $6.25 over four years.

But the union has countered that the industry, which received billions in Covid relief funds, should commit to a significant pay bump for workers who are struggling to make rent in LA. Tourism and hotel occupancy levels have recovered, and ahead of the upcoming Fifa World Cup in 2026 and the summer Olympics in 2028 – which are expected to bring in record visitors and profits for the industry – workers are demanding improvements to their contracts.

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A big point of contention the union-backed contract addresses is the pandemic-era elimination of daily room cleanings. Rather than wiping down and touching up rooms on a daily basis, workers are given fewer hours to deep-clean days of buildup after long stays. Several large hotel corporations have proposed permanently reducing their housekeeping staff, which could result in $4.8bn in lost wages for workers across the industry.

Iris Acosta, 55, said she had developed shoulder and knee injuries because of the backbreaking nature of her housekeeping job. “To the surprise of everyone, during the pandemic, the hotel was renovated, and now there is glass everywhere,” which she now painstakingly cleans, she said. “They are expecting us to do more work in fewer hours.”

On top of that, management had threatened to cut health benefits, she said – which would make it harder for her to get a necessary surgery for her injuries and afford her monthly medications. “I’m a cancer survivor, and I need a lot of medications,” she said. “I really need that health insurance.”

Since immigrating from Honduras to the US 32 years ago, Acosta said, she’s been working the whole time – and she still doesn’t have enough money to live, let alone retire in the US. “With the cost of living here – I cannot live,” she said. “So we are waiting – waiting for a deal.”

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