On the road to Los Angeles International Airport in the pre-dawn dark, Inez Luna’s eyes appear nearly swollen shut with exhaustion.
He got only four hours of sleep, as usual, but he can’t slow down or he’ll be late for his 3:30 a.m. clock-in. For seven hours or more, he’ll load baggage and cargo onto jets at the airport, where his co-workers Anglicized “Luna” to create his nickname, “Mr. Moon.”
Then he crawls back into his Toyota Corolla for a quick midday nap before reporting to job No. 2, washing dishes and busing tables at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel. Off at 10 p.m. and home to South Los Angeles half an hour later, Luna sometimes does not have the energy to pull off his shoes. He simply collapses atop his bed.
A doctor told him he needs more sleep to bring down his blood pressure. A friend warned him: “You are driving 60 miles an hour toward your grave.”
To move Luna and thousands of other Los Angeles hotel workers out of the economic margins, labor activists and their City Hall allies are preparing one of the nation’s boldest programs to attack growing income disparities and lift the take-home pay of low-wage earners. An ordinance soon to be introduced in the City Council is expected to require 87 large hotels to pay a $15.37-an-hour “living wage,” nearly double California’s current $8-an-hour minimum.
Proponents argue that the pay boost will provide a more humane standard of living for roughly 10,000 workers and bolster the local economy by unleashing $71 million in additional consumer spending.
The idea of using higher pay to stimulate economic activity is not limited to liberals. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and some-time libertarian political candidate, is gathering signatures to put a minimum-wage measure on the November state ballot. It would push pay to at least $10 an hour in 2015 and $12 an hour a year later.
But in what promises to be a major business-labor lobbying battle, hotel owners and managers are pushing back against the Los Angeles proposal. They have told City Council members in private meetings that previous wage laws — including one that assures workers at 13 big hotels near LAX a minimum of $11.97 an hour — have forced job cuts, higher prices or reduced customer service. One hotel general manager near the airport described cutting 70 jobs — reducing restaurant hours and trimming back banquet services — after absorbing the higher wages ordered by the city in 2007.
“For every action there is going to be a reaction,” said the general manager, who declined to be named because he had not received permission from his corporate office to speak.
“We need to determine the impact that this wage hike will have on business in Los Angeles before we seek to dramatically increase the wage for just one industry in our city,” Bob Amano, executive director of the Hotel Assn. of Los Angeles, recently wrote to council members. The group is pressing for a detailed study of the economic effects of the proposed new wage requirement before is adopted.
But the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here, says the hospitality industry is experiencing boom times — with the city attracting a record 42.2 million visitors in 2013 — and it’s only fair to share the profits with Luna and other workers who keep the businesses running.
Luna has already seen, firsthand, how city-mandated wage increases can make workers’ lives better. Under the 2007 ordinance approved by the City Council to increase hotel workers’ pay adjacent to LAX, Luna said he receives $12.56 an hour, compared to the $10.30 he made previously. And as a result of another wage increase mandated by City Hall, and regular cost-of-living adjustments, the minimum hourly pay for workers at his LAX baggage handling job now is $15.67.
“It’s God’s gift to have that extra money,” Luna said. It helped him buy a house in South Los Angeles, a bungalow with barred windows that he shares with his wife, Luz, and her son from a previous marriage. His dilemma is that his higher-paying baggage and cargo-loading job does not include benefits. If he could get $15 an hour at the Hilton, and keep his healthcare insurance, he would make that his lone job.
“While the money [from two jobs] goes up, the quality of my life is going down,” Luna said. “I have to sleep to get strength, and I don’t have the time to sleep.”
Fifty-four years old and barely 5 feet tall, Luna has known hard work during his youth in El Salvador and through his 26 years in America. He grew up without a mother, who died when he was 7, or a father, who was often absent. In the 1980s, Luna said, he was conscripted into the Salvadoran army and spent more than two years fighting leftist insurgents in a brutal civil war.
He arrived in America in 1988 and worked in a laundry for the Los Angeles County jail system, among other places. He landed his airport Hilton job in 1999 and his second job, with the LAX cargo contractor, eight years ago. He became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
Luna said he understands why some Americans are unhappy with immigrants who “take advantage of the opportunity” and rely on too many government benefits. “I like to fight hard to get ahead myself,” he said. He argued that higher hourly wages will reduce reliance on public welfare programs.
His family makes other sacrifices to get ahead. His wife’s live-in housekeeping job requires her to stay at her employers’ home near Beverly Hills, meaning the couple spends most nights apart. For Christmas, she prepared a traditional meal of chicken, bread and papusas, which her husband missed because he was working back-to-back shifts.
Luna said he makes about $49,000 a year, paying about a quarter of it in taxes. His wife makes roughly $20,000 a year. He believes they can make it on just the full-time Hilton job and his wife’s work, if the proposal to increase wages at hotels with 100 rooms or more is approved. He’d get about $3 an hour more.
The city’s largest hotels can adjust workloads or cut employee hours to maintain profits, he said. “They never lose.”
But the whole city would win with higher base wages, from the vantage point of Mr. Moon. “We will make more money and get more food for our families, spend more at other places,” said Luna, who is not a member of the hotel workers’ union, but strongly supports the campaign for higher minimum pay. “We are fighting to make things a little bit better. We are fighting for our communities, for our families, for everything.”