THE BLOG
11/05/2012 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Measure N: A Decent Minimum Wage for Long Beach Hotel Workers, An Economic Shot in the Arm for Long Beach

I am a strong supporter of Measure N [Yes on Measure N], a Long Beach city ballot measure on the November 6th ballot that would set a minimum wage for workers in our city's hotel industry of $13/hour, or an average of $2,000/month. Who are the people that this ballot measure would help - and why will a focused improvement of our tourism industry have lasting, expansive benefits for Long Beach?

Maria Patlan is a hotel housekeeper who lives and works in Long Beach, CA. She has spent more than ten years in our tourism industry, her hard work contributing to that industry's success even through recession. Through years of physically taxing labor and ten- or fifteen-cent raises, the most she ever earned was $11.35/hour. She lives with two of her four children and one grandchild in a one-bedroom apartment in Long Beach, and has had to seek public assistance to provide them with health care.

Donald Blackwood is a Long Beach hotel bellman. He makes the California minimum wage - $8/hr - and while tips are not predictable, on average they get him to a little under $12/hour. Donald lives with his mother, who has chronic health problems, in a one-bedroom apartment. He would like to save up to get her better care, but he has nothing left over after basic living expenses "It feels like I'm just treading water," says Donald. "Like I can't advance."

Romeo Trinidad, a ten-year veteran of the industry, lives in downtown Long Beach with his wife, who is ill, and his two daughters, who share a bunk bed in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment. He would like to earn enough for them to have their own room, where they could do their homework.

As a two-term city councilmember from Long Beach, I am deeply familiar with the success story of our booming tourism industry - and with the pockets of poverty that continue to grip our city. These are two chapters in the same story; which is why some have called Long Beach a "Tale of Two Cities." Like many cities in Southern California, Long Beach was hit hard by the disappearance of aerospace and manufacturing in the 1980s. We doubled down on tourism, with public investments of $750 million to attract tourists and tourism businesses to our city, going so far as to invest $114 million in direct subsidies to hotels.

Now it's time to ask what is our return on that investment. From the outside, it appears successful - the industry weathered the recession with impressive profits. Today, Long Beach competes strongly for convention business with Anaheim, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Because of projected business gains, industry analysts PKF Consulting believe that hotel room rates will rise a total of 25 percent in the next four years, but still remain below those competing convention markets.

At 10.1 percent of our employment base, hospitality is a critical part of the Long Beach economy. And this is where we can see, underneath the rosy surface, the unhealthy reality. According to a report from California State University-Long Beach, incomes in the industry average around $20,812, less than half the Long Beach median wage of $48,000. Long Beach taxpayers put millions of dollars in to tourism, but now pay a "double subsidy" as workers make so little that they need public assistance to get by.

Most importantly, Measure N would give these workers a break. They would make enough to get off public assistance and stop "treading water," as Donald Blackwood put it. Next, the extra money that Measure N would put in workers' pockets would stay in Long Beach -- to the tune of an estimated $7 million annually, spending that would create and sustain jobs in our city and deliver the city much needed tax revenue, enough to hire more police officers or even build a park. It is this astounding community effect that has won support for Measure N from a broad and inspiring coalition, one that includes community activists, local clergy, and more than 130 small businesses.

Long Beach has a profitable tourism industry. It needs a healthy one as well -- one, which pays its workers enough to live decent lives and give back to our local economy. With boom times ahead, the industry can afford to pay its workers a reasonable minimum wage. With poverty continuing to pull our city down, we cannot afford not to. Maria Patlan said that if Measure N passes, she would immediately get her family off of public health insurance. "But first," she said, "I would do a dance of joy."