Hotel Workers Lead the Fight to Protect all Oakland Workers

Hotel Workers’ Safety on Local Ballot in November

By Julia Park Tracey

OAKLAND -- Panic buttons and a higher minimum wage may sound like meaningless employee demands to the general public, but for Oakland hotel workers, both of these are critical safety guards. This November, it will be up to the voters to decide if protecting vulnerable hotel employees is a value they support should a department be developed to protect all Oakland employees.

Oakland City Council members voted late last month to accept petition signatures for a ballot measure that will establish a Department of Employment and Workplace Standards, create safety standards and provide a higher minimum wage for these employees within the city. The citizen-led petitions were submitted to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters by Unite Here! Local 2850, an employee union representing hotel, food service and gaming workers in the East and North Bay areas. The petitions were verified and found sufficient by the registrar and sent to the council for approval.

If approved by the voters, the ordinance would amend the city civil code, modifying how Oakland’s local employment standards are enforced and creating the new department. The measure must pass with 50 percent of the vote plus one on Nov. 6, according to Oakland City Clerk LaTonda Simmons.

Yulisa Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the union, told the city council at its meeting on July 24, “Hotel housekeepers, who are mostly women of color, are working alone and working in private rooms, where they are at the front lines of sexual assault that is happening in the workplace today.”

“These women deserve a safe workplace, free from threat, free from sexual violence threat,” Elenes said. “They should feel supported when filing a complaint or removing themselves from the situation. Right now, that’s not the case. They’re scared to file a complaint because they believe that their boss would not believe them. They’re always told that the guest is first, and if someone complains, they just send a different housekeeper the next day to get harassed. This measure will protect housekeepers from sexual assault or threats, providing every hotel housekeeper with a panic button to call [for help].”

While female hotel workers face more sexual harassment than most, a Department of Employment and Workplace Standards will protect all Oakland employees, a great benefit to those who work in unpredictable and dangerous work sites. Construction workers of all trades will have safer work sites as this department would oversee employer’s compliance with safety regulations, and workers in all industries could rest more assured that their earned wages were protected.

Another vital element of the measure is raising the hourly minimum wage for this industry to $15 so that employees can afford to live locally; currently, California has a minimum wage of $11, and Oakland’s minimum wage is $13.23. 

The actual measure, as yet not numbered, on which Oakland citizens will vote in November, reads as follows: “Measure __. Shall the measure to amend Oakland’s Municipal Code to: (1) establish workplace protections and a minimum hourly wage of $15, to be increased annually with inflation, for employees of Oakland hotels with 50 or more guest rooms; (2) authorize administrative enforcement of Oakland’s local employment standards for both hotel and non-hotel workers; and (3) create a new City department to administratively enforce Oakland’s local employment standards for both hotel and non-hotel workers, be adopted?” The measure is still contingent upon final approval by the city attorney.

A new Department of Workplace and Employment Standards (DWES) would be created under the authority of the Oakland city administrator, effective July 1, 2020, to be administered by a chief officer appointed by the city administrator. The DWES would impose penalties and enforce the requirements of employment laws and provisions. Investigations might include wage disputes, maintenance of employee records, and employers not abiding by laws and statutes.

Both San Jose and San Francisco have departments that enforce local employment standards for a broad range of industries.

Hotel worker Socorro Añala formerly cleaned rooms at a nationally-known hotel chain on Hegenberger Road and called her experience there a bad one, through an interpreter. She alleged that employees did not get rest or lunch breaks and were afraid that they would get into trouble if they did not finish their 18 to 20 rooms per shift. “I’m here to get your support, we need your support, because the work for housekeepers is very hard work,” she told the council.

Elvia (who did not want to be fully identified), a resident of Oakland for more than 25 years, said through a translator that she used to work for another well-known hotel chain which she said did not have a union. Elvia alleged that she worked long hours without benefits, insufficient time to clean suites after party-goers had trashed them, and missed breaks to keep up with the demands. She also alleged that the hotel shorted workers of rightful hours on their paychecks. She asked the council to support the initiative.

Another hotel worker at the city council meeting who has worked at the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville for 19 years, offered that city’s Measure C as a positive comparison. “[T]his measure helps us with the workload and [our] salaries. In 2005 the hotels in Emeryville were against Measure C. They said it would affect business but that wasn’t the case. Because now that law has been implemented and no one lost their jobs. We have good salaries, we have good health insurance, and we leave work without pain. That gives us extra time to be with our kids,” she said through an interpreter.

Ty Hudson, an organizer with Unite Here! Local 2850, urged the council, which voted unanimously in favor of the item, “We’re going to continue to need your support in the coming months to bring justice to hotel workers in Oakland.”

Panic buttons, which cost as little as $20 or as much as several thousand for an integrated system, are becoming part of the uniform of hotel workers as the #metoo (anti-sexual harassment) movement reaches into the hospitality industry. Employees who feel threatened can push a button and expect security or a supervisor to come to their location, giving the worker a safeguard against unwanted advances or potential violence.

District 3 City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney said, “I want to honor the work that we’ve undertaken [to ensure] a safe city, a just city, and a city that values our workers.” She referred to an investigative report by Reveal News from 2015 on night-shift janitorial staff, men and women, who were subject to high levels of sexual assault (“Rape on the Night Shift” and added, “We have found that similar risks exist for hotel workers.”

The documentary was part of a 2015 collaboration by the Center for Investigative Reporting, UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, KQED, Frontline and Univision. The film tells the stories of janitors who said the solitude of the job and the night shift led to violence and sexual harassment while their employers looked the other way.

“It’s important that we’re doing everything we can to protect women in the workplace,” Gibson McElhaney said. “This underreporting of workplace rapes is absolutely heartbreaking for all women.”

Various sources, from Local 2850’s regional offices to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), show that as many as 58 percent of hotel employees have experienced some sort of sexual harassment while on the job. The EEOC says some 25 percent of charges filed come from the service sector; 14 percent of those are from the hotel industry. Reported harassment ranges from unwanted touching, guest nudity, soliciting, groping, cornering and rape, and affects predominantly female employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A local hashtag of #timesupoakland has been circulating on Twitter, linking stories or news items about the topic of sexual harassment for Oakland hospitality employees.

If the measure passes in November, the Department of Workplace and Employment Standards would ideally ensure that hotel workers are safe while working.

Make sure to follow @OaklandConduit on Twitter for updates on Oakland’s proposed November ballot initiatives. For more information on the Nov. 6 election, click here.

Julia Park Tracey is a Bay Area freelance journalist.

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