Hotel worker Juana Melgara speaks in support of hotel workers' rights. File photo.

Supporters of the ordinance formerly known as Claudia’s Law march during a demonstration in 2015. Photo: Stephanie Rivera

An ordinance aimed at protecting the hundreds of hotel workers in Long Beach from sexual assault and being overworked will have to wait as the city council voted 5-4 Tuesday night against instructing the city manager to craft legislation that would have impacted hotels across the city.

The controversial vote was recorded just before midnight and after nearly four hours of discussion on the matter. When the vote was revealed the chamber broke into chants of “Shame on you” as supporters of the motion showered the council with their displeasure.

While not completely shutting down the discussion, Tuesday’s vote passes a resolution that “states the city council’s strong support” for hospitality worker protections. It encourages the industry to both work with local law enforcement to create safety plans to protect workers and guests and supports workers’ abilities to unionize, but stops short of the original motion that could have created an ordinance with more teeth.

The Hospitality and Workload Safety Ordinance, previously referred to as Claudia’s Law, has been in the works for years and was the focus of local community groups and labor unions as they pressed the city council to push for greater protections for hotel workers. The law was named after Claudia Sanchez, a former worker at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown who fell into a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage after completing a 14-hour shift in 2015. Sanchez eventually awoke months later but was partially paralyzed.

Eighth District Councilman Al Austin, who introduced the substitute motion for the less stringent resolution, said that he was open to continuing the discussion, but that the complex issue required much more time for a thoughtful law to be created.

“I came to this city as an aircraft worker from over 25 years ago and that industry is gone,” Austin said. “The hospitality industry is more and more important today than ever before so I don’t want to be rushed into any decision by emotion. I want to make sure we’re making measured decisions, that we’re making decisions that will be in the best interest of all residents.”

The provisions of Claudia’s Law would have included requirements that hotels issue panic buttons to each hotel employee working a guest room alone at no charge to the employee, a daily notice to workers if alleged harassers or sex offenders are staying in the hotel including the room number they’re staying in and signage on the backs of hotel doors outlining labor protection laws.

Limitations on workloads could also be included in the ordinance, ones that could require hotels to pay employees time and a half rates after a worker has cleaned over 4,000 square feet in any 8-hour work day as well as provide a written or electronic log where workers can consent to overtime hours in the event of an emergency. It would also create anti-retaliation laws and avenues for employees to receive legal support if they file a suit against their employer.

The ordinance was introduced by First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez. Leading off the hours-long conversation, Gonzalez said that filing the motion to create an ordinance that strives to protect workers in Long Beach hotels from sexual and other workplace abuses was not the political thing to do, but “the right thing to do”.

It would have applied to all hotels across the city with an opt-out clause of certain work-related provisions—not including any of those tied to assault prevention—for those hotels that have a unionized workforce.

The motion was co-sponsored by council members Rex Richardson, Jeannine Pearce and Roberto Uranga. All four voted against Austin’s motion that favored a resolution over the drafting of a citywide ordinance.

“This policy is about a vision that says that Long Beach is thriving and we can do better,” Pearce said. “We’ve got great managers there, we’ve got great staff but we have to recognize that there’s a problem in an industry and we can fix it. We can be the leaders.”

An overflow crowd packed city hall as weeks of outreach by community organizers brought hundreds of supporters of the motion and a separate sanctuary city item to Downtown Long Beach. Dozens of supporters of the bill lined up to urge the council to support the item, but their efforts fell short, for now.

Yolanda Zovala, an 8-year employee in the city’s hotel industry, spoke bluntly through an interpreter on how she wanted the council to vote Tuesday night.

“Enough is enough, we want the situation to change,” Zovala said. “We need a common sense law that will protect us women who clean rooms in Long Beach. We’re upset because there are hotel managers here today watching us as we stand for ourselves and women against abuse, a law that they are fighting against us.”

Another hotel worker named Juana Melara said that although she knows her job contributes to the local economy she feels as though she is invisible. She recounted the cautionary tale that her hotel management tells housekeepers of an employee that was raped during one of the city’s Grand Prix weekends, adding that she too has been subjected to unwanted sexual advances by guests.

“In the 22 years that I’ve been working more than a few times guests have asked me for sexual favors and exposed their private parts to me,” Melara said. “This alone is very disturbing to deal with when you’re trying to do your job. But what makes it worse is when you tell your manager about it and he or she makes you feel like it’s your fault.”

Industry representatives argued the item was a far cry from sound public policy, alleging that the effort was a ploy by a union—Unite Here Local 11 was the main proponent behind the push for Claudia’s Law—to impose its will on industry through a city council vote.

“No one is saying tonight that business should not be regulated,” said Kent Peterson, chair of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re just saying that it should be done with collaboration and much discussion and not on the will of one entity not getting their way in the private market. We know that if this passes other industries are next and this is just setting a bad precedent for the city and the local economy.”

Ultimately the reservations of a majority of the council over the potential for legal challenges to the ordinance and the impact it may or may not have on the hotel industry as the city continues to ramp up development in the face of the 2028 Olympics won out. This may not be the end of Claudia’s Law, but the ambiguity of the time frame in which the discussion will continue left the public visibly upset as the council cast its vote.

“I’m willing to work on these issues going forward but I don’t want to put a timeline on anything, Austin said to a chorus of boos. “What’s going to be the difference between what’s happening today and thirty days from now?”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.