A decision to raise hotel workers’ wages to $25 an hour in Anaheim – and grant greater workplace protections – will go to city voters later this year.

At their regular Tuesday meeting, the City Council’s resort-backed majority voted 5-2 to send a union backed ordinance to voters in a special election on Sept. 12 despite criticism that such elections have much lower voter turnout than general elections.

City council members who supported the September date said it allows voters to focus singularly on the issue. 

Ada Briceño, co-president of Unite Here Local 11 that represents scores of Disneyland-area resort workers, said the special election would “spit in the face of democracy.”

“It’s going to be viewed as yet another tax giveaway from your city,” Briceño said during Tuesday’s public comment. “You will be showing Anaheim that once again, they cannot trust their city leaders to resist the demands of this outrageous industry.” 

Hotel workers said the proposed ordinance would allow them to afford the increasing rental rates in Southern California. 

A majority of council members, along with hoteliers, called it a job killer. 

It’s the same argument that resort-friendly officials made against Measure L, a minimum wage measure applied to resort businesses receiving city subsidies. 

Like the hotel minimum wage initiative, resort interests opposed Measure L.

After more than 83,000 Anaheim voters decided on the issue, the minimum wage initiative passed by roughly 8 percentage points in the November 2018 general election

Tuesday night’s decision comes at the advice of a private consulting firm that had its research center shut down in UC Riverside this year, after faculty complained the firm was using the university’s name to advance outside interests without proper academic oversight, according to an LA Times article earlier this year

“The credentials for the two consultants we retained speak for themselves,” City Manager James Vanderpool said during Tuesday’s meeting.

It also comes more than a year after revelations of a set of FBI affidavits – as part of a federal corruption probe – which alleged that the resort industry, through the Chamber of Commerce, had undue influence over Anaheim city hall.

Earlier this year, Unite Here Local 11, which claims to represent over 32,000 hotel workers across Southern California and Arizona, gathered more than enough signatures to force a debate on their hotel worker protection and minimum wage ordinance in Anaheim.

[Read: Anaheim Officials to Decide if Hotel Workers Get a $25 Minimum Wage or Not]

For over two and a half hours on Tuesday night, hoteliers and their representatives called on officials to send the measure to a special election, arguing that a decision should be made sooner than later. 

Proponents, meanwhile, called for the ordinance to go before a general election to avoid spending over a million in taxpayer money and low voter turnout.

Both union and resort interests have separately boosted the campaigns of nearly every Anaheim City Council Members through independent expenditures on things like political mailers and digital advertising. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilman Carlos Leon were the only two who voted against calling for a special election.

“We, the city, the hotel industry, and the workers are in a car careening towards a cliff and nobody, not one of us, can jump out now,” she said.

Aitken, whose father Wylie Aitken chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors, argued for the issue to be placed on next November’s ballot so voter participation on the issue could be high.

“I want the largest amount of Anaheim residents to participate and weigh in and historically we know this not to be the case with special elections.”

Unite Here gave $100,000 to the Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC, which helped boost the campaigns of Aitken and Leon last year.

That political action committee, in turn, spent $138,000 in campaign support for Aitken and around $91,000 in support of Leon’s campaign last year.

The resort interests, however, heavily outspent union interests on their preferred candidates.

A family walks towards the Disneyland park’s entrance Friday, July 8, 2022. Credit: Renee Elefante / Voice of OC Credit: RENEE ELEFANTE, Voice of OC

One such resort-backed Council Member, Natalie Meeks, claimed that misinformation was going around about what the ordinance does.

And that the city should help inform voters.

“I’m going to support a special election,” she said. “I think that the economy for Anaheim needs to have this resolved, that we need to continue to let our businesses know that we are a place that they can invest in.”

Last year, Meeks received nearly $546,000 in campaign support from Disney through a local political action committee – Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) – the most of any council member.

A special election could cost the city over $1.6 million dollars, according to a staff report.

Putting the ordinance before voters in next year’s general election may have cost the city over $233,000, according to staff estimates.

Right before considering the union’s proposal Tuesday night, council members voted unanimously to introduce their own worker protection ordinance for hospitality employees.

But it doesn’t include any wage increase for hotel workers.

It came at the request of resort-backed Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava.

At the meeting, Rubalcava said it would put safeguards in place for workers.

“When there are allegations, stories about people … who might be in danger in our hotels, it’s important for me to bring something forward so that we can actually fix that problem,” she said.

Rubalcava received nearly $380,000 in campaign money from SOAR.

She also supported placing Unite Here’s ordinance on a special election, along with councilmembers Jose Diaz, Norma Campos Kurtz, and Stephen Faessel.

Yet the council refused to hold a special election when former Councilman Avelino Valencia was elected to the state Assembly last November. Staff estimated holding a special election to fill the vacancy could’ve cost up to $227,000. 

Instead, council members appointed Kurtz, who sat on SOAR’s advisory board, in January. 

The city’s hotel workers protection ordinance is expected to return for a second vote at the next city council meeting.

Read the ordinance here.

Workers and Hoteliers Debate Minimum Wage Bump

Rank and file hotel workers, union organizers and advocates in red t-shirts spoke out in favor of the measure, arguing it could allow workers to put a roof over their families’ heads as well as food on the table.

“We (are) working very hard and the money we make is not enough for living. I need to have two jobs to support my family,” said Elizabeth Gallindo, a Hilton Anaheim room attendant, during public comment. 

Gallindo continued, “We are citizens, we are workers and we pay our tax. We deserve to live with dignity.”

Last week, hotel workers in Orange County and across Southern California overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike over pay – citing rising housing costs – amid contract negotiations.

[Read: Southern California Hotel Workers Authorize Strike]

Resort interests and hoteliers – some of whom run family owned hotels – pushed back on Unite Here’s ordinance, raising concerns that the pay increase would be detrimental to their industry due to higher operating costs, which could impact public services funding.

Samantha Marquez, executive director of the Anaheim/OC Hotel and Lodging Association, said the ordinance would diminish the city’s hotel tax revenue.

“Anaheim’s resort district is a vibrant catalyst,” she said during public comment. “Anaheim hotels would bear a heavy burden under this measure. The proposed regulations could lead to housekeeping costs tripling or quadrupling, making Anaheim less affordable for visitors and tourism.”

One of the city’s biggest hoteliers, William O’Connell, identified himself as a “stakeholder” in the city for as much as 60 years in public comments.

Arguing that the resort industry’s been vilified by critics, O’Connell likened the measure to things like identity politics to the cheers of the pro-resort crowd behind him.

In public comments, some hoteliers said they treat their employees well and that they even have parties for the workers.

It drew the ire of Briceño.

“No party will make up for having a roof over someone’s head,” she said at the meeting. “This is the only place in the United States that treats all their employees perfectly? Give me a fucking break.”

A Rushed Economic Analysis?

Marquez and hoteliers pointed to a recent economic analysis council members called for last month.

[Read: Anaheim Council Refuses Minimum Wage Increase For Hotel Workers]

According to the study, the ordinance would negatively impact the Anaheim Convention Center’s finances by between $7.3 million to $8.6 million a year and the city’s budget by about $8.6 million the first year with costs going up annually after that.

Another study on the proposed ordinance’s impact on the city’s hotel tax was attached to the agenda the same day of the meeting. It found that the proposed law would create a short term bump in hotel tax revenue followed by a long term decline in revenue growth.

The hotel tax revenue study was conducted by Beacon Economics – a private consulting firm while the other study was conducted by Baker Tilly – an advisory tax firm.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that UC Riverside shut down their research center run by Beacon Economics after faculty complaints that the firm produced their own commissioned reports “attacking proposals to improve the lives of working Californians.”

In responding to officials’ questions after their presentation, a Beacon Economics representative said their firm did not reach out to the hotel workers within the roughly 30-day time frame they had to analyze the measure. 

Union organizers and representatives said the study was rushed and unreliable.

Ada Tamayo, a Unite Here organizer and Anaheim resident, asked council members to imagine what it’s like to work long hours and not be able to pay the rent. 

She adds that $25 an hour is not much.

“We are not asking to give them a castle. We’re asking to give them a way to live,” she said, adding that workers are the “faces of tourism in Anaheim.”

“These people don’t own anything, they don’t own a house. They barely can pay the rent.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.


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