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A hotel worker's 3-hour commute tells the story of LA's housing crisis and her strike

Striking hotel workers walk the picket line in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 2023.
Ringo Chiu
AFP via Getty Images
Striking hotel workers walk the picket line in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 2023.

Brenda Mendoza was born and raised in Los Angeles' Koreatown, just a 10-minute drive from the upscale JW Marriott hotel where she's been working for 14 years.

But priced out of the downtown area she grew up in, Mendoza now lives almost 100 miles away in Apple Valley and commutes two to three hours each way to get to work.

"Rents are going high," Mendoza said, talking to NPR just outside the JW Marriott during a short break. She decided to move last year when rent for their two-bedroom apartment rose to $3,000 a month, making it unaffordable for her.

Long commutes, for Mendoza and many of her colleagues, are a key reason why they've been on rolling strikes since early July.

The union that represents the hotel workers, Unite Here Local 11, has come up with a unique proposal, directly tied to the housing crisis that workers face: a hospitality workforce housing fund. The idea is that hotels should charge a 7% fee on all guest rooms — and that money would help workers with their housing costs.

Los Angeles is notorious for its high cost of living. According to rental platform Zumper, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $3,000, out of reach for many low-income workers.

Mendoza moved from Koreatown to Downey, in southeast Los Angeles County, two years ago. Then, rising rent in Downey forced her to move again last year – this time to Apple Valley.

To make it to her 7 a.m. shift at work, Mendoze has to wake up at 3 a.m. Her husband and son also have to wake up early for their pre-dawn commutes to get to their jobs in the city because Mendoza drops them off before showing up to her own place of work. There, she makes $25 an hour as a uniform attendant, handling the outfits of the hotel staff, among other housekeeping tasks.

Mendoza said the commute takes a toll on her family's quality of life. It's also expensive — they spend a lot more on gas than they would if they lived closer.

"It's adding up. And we're barely making ends meet," Mendoza said. "Groceries are expensive as well — we just don't make it with one job."

Along with pay raises, workers say a housing fund could make a difference

The collective bargaining agreement for 15,000 hotel workers — including housekeepers, cooks and front desk agents — at about 60 Los Angeles area hotels expired at the end of June.

Since then, the Unite Here Local 11 union has been fighting for an hourly wage increase of more than $10. This would amount to a roughly 40% pay raise for Mendoza.

The housing fund could make a huge difference, workers say.

The details of the fund still need to be worked out. An April 20 union proposal reviewed by NPR shows the money could be used for affordable housing construction, or for low-interest emergency loans to help hospitality workers when they're behind on rent. The 7% fee could potentially replace existing fees imposed on guests.

The fund could generate $150 million each year, according to the union.

"That actually could pay, we think, for 2- to 3,000 units of new construction," said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.

The union has also asked the industry to support a city ballot measure that would require hotels to rent vacant rooms to unhoused Angelenos.

"Everyone else recognizes it's a problem," but hotels don't want to talk about it

But Petersen said the hotels haven't agreed to discuss the union's housing proposals.

"The only people in Los Angeles who don't want to talk about housing are the owners of the hotels," Petersen said. "Everyone else recognizes it's a problem."

The coalition of hotels filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in June. They're accusing the union of bad faith bargaining — they say the housing proposals are "non mandatory subjects of bargaining." From their perspective, it's not the hotels' responsibility to secure housing for their employees.

Keith Grossman, a spokesperson for the coalition of hotels, told NPR the hotels reject Unite Here's housing initiatives, including the 7% tax on guest rooms.

"This insistence also constitutes an unfair labor practice and is totally misguided as it would hurt the Union's own members by putting unionized hotels at a competitive disadvantage," Grossman said.

This approach to housing will become "more common"

Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and employment at MIT, says Unite Here's approach — focusing on one area, and one industry — is innovative, and has potential to address housing affordability in a creative way.

He said there's a "critical need" for this type of industry-specific initiative.

"Given the high cost of housing and the crisis that many workers and families are facing, this will be something that will be more common," Kochan said.

But Kochan said employers, like the hotels, first have to see it as being in their interest for workers to live close to their jobs. And so far, that's not something the Los Angeles hotels have publicly embraced.

"[Unions] are going to have to work with the employers, because they're going to have to develop an institutional arrangement that works," Kochan said. "That's a possible conversation where some creative solutions can come together."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.
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