A union that represents hospitality workers won a victory in Irvine, which just adopted a new law requiring hotels to give workers “panic buttons” for safety and limiting how many rooms per day housekeepers must clean – and the next city in its sights is Anaheim.

Officials with Unite Here Local 11 – which has backed similar laws in Los Angeles, Glendale, Long Beach and other cities – say the goal is to keep workers safe, not only from harassment and assault on the job, but also from exploitation. But some opponents see the campaign as more about arm-twisting to get more hotels unionized, and they argue the rules could cause more financial and staffing hardships to an industry still recovering from pandemic losses.

Unite Here members were celebrating Wednesday, the day after the Irvine City Council gave final approval to the new rules, which also say that hotel workers must be paid double time for cleaning any rooms beyond their quota, and that they can’t be forced to work a shift longer than 10 hours unless they consent.

Smaller hotels (those with fewer than 45 rooms) are exempt from Irvine’s new rules, there’s a waiver process for “adverse economic impact,” and the rules can be avoided by hotels that bargain with workers represented by a union.

“It’s a spectacular win for us,” Unite Here Local 11 Co-President Ada Briceño said.

The union has been pushing the same types of rules around the country, she said, but it was especially urgent to get them in place in Irvine after “a big spike of issues” reported by hotel workers in the city, some of whom said they saw hotel guests expose themselves or that they were groped.

In a phone interview, Maria Balderas said she’s had guests expose themselves in front of her, so she’s excited and happy for the new protections. (Balderas spoke in Spanish with a Unite Here spokeswoman translating.)

Balderas, who has worked as a housekeeper at an Irvine hotel for 17 years, also called the rules “a big relief” because they’ll guarantee she’s paid fairly when given a heavier workload. In the past, managers “didn’t care if I didn’t see my kids – all they cared about was for me to get the rooms done,” she said.

Representatives of Irvine hoteliers have said many already have strong safety measures in place to protect their employees and the rules for workloads – written without their opportunity for input – will exacerbate staffing shortages and could take hotel rooms out of rotation because they can’t be cleaned on a timely basis.

The union’s campaign to help hotel workers hasn’t been welcomed everywhere. Laguna Beach voters firmly rejected an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that included the same worker safety provision and workload limits as Irvine, plus an $18 minimum wage for hotel workers. And Anaheim hoteliers may be gearing up for a fight if Unite Here gets enough signatures to put a measure before voters in that city.

Outgoing Irvine Councilmember Anthony Kuo was one of two “no” votes on the Irvine rules. He said Wednesday that he would have supported the safety provision on its own, even though he believes some of the claims about workers being assaulted are overblown and include cases where police noted the incident, but didn’t find a crime was committed.

“My concern is they’re combining that, which is a public safety issue, with a wage issue,” he said. Even though Irvine’s new rules don’t include a minimum wage, they create a new requirement that housekeepers be paid extra for larger workloads.

Kuo also wanted more data, such as how much it might cost hotels to implement the new safety provisions, but union leaders said it was urgent to move the proposal forward right away, he said.

“At the end of the day, this wasn’t even a policy discussion, it was a political maneuver,” he said. “They believe if it’s a union shop, they’ll get agreements even more favorable than this.”

In Anaheim, where Disneyland and other attractions draw millions of annual visitors, Unite Here is gathering signatures to try to get two measures on the 2024 ballot: one would set safety and workload guidelines for hotel workers, and the other would raise the minimum wage for workers in larger hotels, the city’s convention center and other big event venues.

Most Anaheim hotels either already have buttons workers can press in an emergency, or they’ve agreed to implement them, said Tony Bruno, managing director of the Anaheim/Orange County Hotel and Lodging Association.

“The safety button initiative is one that has already been in process and hotels are in the process of implementing (it)”, Bruno said. And as to the other proposals, “we think the initiative is far overreaching, but we’ll wait until we see the signatures to comment further.”

Briceño said she’s “saddened” that Laguna Beach voters rejected the hotel worker measure and she wasn’t sure why, other than a strong campaign against it by hotel operators.

She scoffed at the idea that it would be a financial hardship for large hotel chains and high-end resorts to improve workers’ pay, and she pushed back on the suggestion that the real goal is to get more hotels to the bargaining table.

The purpose of the exemption for union shops is to avoid undercutting union contracts, which might be even better for hotel workers than what’s in the ballot measures and city ordinances, Briceño said. “They will come up with every excuse in the book not to do what’s correct for people and that’s why we’re in these difficult circumstances.”

The union needs nearly 17,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot in Anaheim, and the petitions are due in March and April, city spokesman Mike Lyster said.

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