California Hotel Association to sue Long Beach over hotel ‘panic button’ measure

The California Hotel & Lodging Association is filing a lawsuit against the city of Long Beach in an effort to stop a new local law that sets workload limits for hotel housekeeps.

Known as the housekeeper “panic button” initiative, Measure WW, which was passed by voters in November, mandates that all large hotels in Long Beach provide panic buttons for workers to protect them against sexual assault. It also imposes limits on overtime and the amount of space that housekeepers can clean per shift.

The measure was hotly contested by hotel owners who said the workload provisions would be a significant burden on the industry. Meanwhile, proponents, largely lead by the Unite Here hotels workers union, said the effort was necessary to protect worker safety.

In its lawsuit expected to be filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, the California Hotel Association says the workload limits in Measure WW overstep the state’s current safety standards under the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA.

Under California Labor Code, the state Standards Board is the only agency authorized to adopt occupational health and safety standards, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to permanently halt the hotel labor provisions under the city’s municipal code. A representative from the Long Beach city attorney’s office on Monday declined to comment because the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

In an interview, California Hotel Association President Lynn Mohrfeld said the association is not seeking monetary damages from the city, it just wants to stop a law that he said has become a confusing, logistical nightmare for local hotels.

“From an operational basis, this has been very difficult for hotels,” he said. “Everyone is on their own trying to figure it out.”

Under Measure WW, housekeepers can’t clean more than 4,000 square feet of floorspace in an eight-hour workday. If a housekeeper is required to work overtime or clean more square footage, the employer must give 30 days notice or pay double the rate for the full workday. The workloads and overtime provisions can be waived under a collective bargaining agreement.

Mohrfeld said the law is so vague that hotels, among other issues, are having trouble calculating the square footage for smaller tasks such as turning down the corner of a bed, emptying a trashcan or cleaning up spilled popcorn in a hallway.

Many housekeepers also are upset because employers are now reluctant to grant last-minute overtime, as hotel operators would be required to pay double the rate for the entire day, he said.

In Oakland, which enacted a similar law last year, the city had to create a separate department just to handle the regulation issues, Mohrfeld said. Palos Verdes will consider a similar measure this November.

Labor advocates have long tried to establish workload provisions under “Claudia’s Law.”  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. She eventually awoke months later but was partially paralyzed.

Mohrfeld said CAL/OSHA worked with stakeholders for more than six years on its health and safety plan for hotel housekeepers. The proposed state standards were unanimously adopted in January 2018 and should be the same for all hotels, he said.

“Measure WW basically usurps CAL/OSHA authority and now we’re being subject to willy nilly regulations for nonunion hotels,” he said.

The lawsuit will have no impact on panic buttons for hotel employees since the City Council last year passed a separate ordinance mandating that all hotels and motels provide the devices for staff.

The issue has been a major source contention for the Long Beach City Council, which shot down a similar effort in 2017 and was divided on Measure WW. Last fall, four members twice refused to vote on the panic button ordinance and instead walked out during two council meetings.

Mohrfeld said he expects the case to go before a judge later this year.

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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