City leaders are showing support for beefing up on-the-job protections for many of Irvine’s hotel workers, including requiring safety precautions and limits on workloads.

While similar laws are being seen more throughout Southern California, Irvine would be the first in Orange County with an ordinance of this kind if the City Council finalizes it with a second required vote at an upcoming meeting. The new rules would require hotels larger than 44 rooms to give their employees panic buttons and it would establish limits on the maximum square footage housekeepers could be asked to clean in a day.

Similar laws have been enacted in recent years in Long Beach, Glendale and Los Angeles. In Laguna Beach, voters on Nov. 8 are set to decide on a measure that would have similar job-protection requirements, as well as require an $18 minimum wage for hotel employees. And in Anaheim, language for two similar proposed initiatives have been submitted for likely the 2024 ballot.

Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim said she had been growing concerned over the safety of hotel workers in the city after listening to their stories of on-the-job harassment and instances of existing panic buttons failing.

She felt an ordinance establishing some standards was needed, putting it before her colleagues, she said, after “realizing that there was absolutely no codification when it came to how they use these (panic button) devices, how workers were trained, how hoteliers were trained, and how they were going to maintain these devices.”

The ordinance won narrow support in the council’s first vote, which was 3-2 on Oct. 25.

The discussion of new rules in Irvine come as travel and hotel stays rebound from the pandemic. While coronavirus-related restrictions have lifted, hotel employees have lamented heavier work loads amid ongoing staffing reductions and fewer daily room cleanings, leaving dirtier hotel suites to be serviced by fewer housekeepers, worker representatives say.

Irvine is home to 22 hotels. Tourism in Irvine, as it did everywhere else, took a nose dive in 2020, and travel spending dropped 57% between 2019 and 2020, according to a report for Destination Irvine. Employment in the travel industry declined about 27%, the report says.

Members of Unite Here, the national union representing workers across the service industry including hotel employees, have been campaigning to prevent hotel owners from ending daily room cleaning, which they say would lead to more job cuts and make rooms more difficult to clean for the fewer workers who are assigned to them.

Ada Briceño, president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel workers throughout Southern California, said staffing is still at reduced levels at many hotels in the region despite recovery within the hospitality industry.

The housekeepers who are employed now “have the same amount of time to clean a room that has been occupied for five days or has been occupied for one day,” Briceño said.

“It’s much harder, takes a lot of wear and tear and a lot of emotional difficulty because they’re under a very strict timeline to finish rooms. So, the quicker they work, the more they harm their bodies,” she said.

Hotel housekeepers are also vulnerable to inappropriate behavior from guests, including sexual harassment or assault, Briceño said. In a 2016 survey by Unite Here of 500 female hospitality workers in Chicago, 49% of housekeepers who responded said they had experienced having guests exposing themselves.

Diana Nusio, a housekeeper at the Irvine Hilton hotel, said she has experienced heavier workloads with the reduction in daily room cleaning and incidents where guests have exposed themselves. She moved to Irvine three years ago, partly because of the city’s reputation for being a safe place to raise a family. Now, with Irvine’s new rules, “being able to have the similar protections in the workplace is going to mean a lot,” Nusio, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator.

The ordinance aims to address the amount of square footage housekeepers can be required to clean in one shift without a compensation adjustment. For hotels with between 45 and 60 guest rooms, a worker couldn’t be required to clean more than 4,500 square feet in an eight-hour workday, unless they are paid double their hourly rate per hour. Hotels with 60 or more rooms would be capped at 3,500 square feet.

The size of the space would be reduced if workers are assigned to multiple hotel buildings or more than two floors. Hotels with less than 45 rooms would be exempt from the floor space provisions.

The law Irvine is set to enact would also prevents hotels from implementing “any program or policy whereby guest rooms are not sanitized and cleaned after each and every night that they are occupied, including a program under which guests receive a financial incentive to not have their guest room cleaned on a daily basis.”

The ordinance would also mandate training and lays out procedures for using and responding to the panic buttons.

If city leaders approve it on the second reading, the provisions limiting the floor space a worker can clean in a shift wouldn’t go into effect for 180 days. The remaining rules would take effect 30 days after the ordinance is adopted.

Some hotel managers and owners voiced concern during the council’s meeting, saying the process to implement the new rules lacked an opportunity for their input. Lynn Mohrfeld, president of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents hotel owners and operators across the state, said in a letter to the City Council that Irvine hotels have already taken “strong safety measures” to protect employees, including panic buttons and injury protection programs.

The ordinance would create a “monumental impact on scheduling and workforce management,” Mohrfeld contended, adding that it would “exacerbate” staffing shortage issues and “most likely would require (hotels) to put rooms out of service, because they wouldn’t be able to be cleaned on a timely basis.”

Briceño said the ordinance is simply putting a requirement on protections that hotels have said they are going to implement.

Kim said she hopes Irvine is seen as leading the way “when it comes to worker protection and worker safety.”

“These are the values of our city, and I know that our residents believe in this wholeheartedly,” she said. “We believe in economic justice, and protecting worker dignity.”

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