In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, October 25, the members of the Irvine City Council became the first city in Orange County to approve an ordinance that aims to improve workplace protection for hospitality workers in Irvine.

During a City Council special meeting, local hospitality workers, many of them speaking through a translator during public comment, shared personal experiences that detailed occurances of repeated propositions for sex and frequent unwanted physical advances from hotel guests toward hospitality staff.

Many public speakers said they experience this type of inhumane treatment on a regular basis.

Now, the Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance will make it the responsibility of hotel management to equip and maintain wearable security devices for staff to utilize in the event someone is harassed, assaulted or in an emergency.

In addition to the personal safety devices, the ordinance will also ensure hotel workers are given adequate resources to report these instances to the proper authorities — without fear of retribution from their employer.

In the narrow 3-2 vote, Irvine City Council members Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo voted against, with Council Members Larry Agran, Tammy Kim and Mayor Farrah Khan voting in favor.

During a phone call with Irvine Weekly on Thursday, Oct. 27, Irvine Council Member Tammy Kim spoke about the different components of the ordinance, adding that the use of “panic button” devices already exists, but this ordinance would require the devices to be maintained by management.

The ordinance spotlights shady workplace practices in the hospitality industry that occur out of public view. Without naming specific hotels, Kim explained that some hotels — not all — may not give employees proper avenues to report workplace harassment.

“It’s loss of business, loss of revenue — I don’t want to speak for all hotels, because I’m sure there are some that are working with the worker’s interest in mind. But, then there are others who are not,” she said. “This is a practice that needs to be remedied — our police know what’s going on, they see it too. For them, this is not a shock. We’re dealing with transient people, these are not our Irvine residents.”

The ordinance will also force hotels to adopt more on-site security, and implement stricter, more transparent measures for workload compensation for hotel employees.

Advocates for the Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance say it’s a welcome addition to local hospitality industry workers who fear not enough is being done to maintain a safe environment for workers inside hotels.

While the council must conduct a second reading of the ordinance at a council meeting before it goes into effect, The Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance will ultimately impact several aspects of hospitality industry employees’ day-to-day responsibilities, which have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under current COVID-19 guidelines, hotel rooms are only cleaned and sanitized after a guest checks out of a hotel. Many hospitality workers expressed their frustration during the special meeting, emphasizing that COVID-19 restrictions have created a bottleneck in housekeeping efficiency, due to the amount of work that accumulates in hotel rooms with the absence of daily room cleanings.

During her comments, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said she was appalled by the testimony of many of the workers, and emphasized that she supported the safety of all hospitality workers. Khan also said she had been made aware of the low level of cleanliness inside hotel rooms.

“I’ve heard the stories of our workers who work countless hours changing the sheets, moving the beds, moving the chairs, scrubbing the bathrooms,” she said. “I want to make sure we are being fair to them as well.”

However, Khan admitted she was not confident the ordinance would function the way its supporters envisioned.

“I don’t think this ordinance does the things that I hope that it does for our workers, just because of the way it’s written, but I know that’s what you want,” Khan said. “I don’t want to revisit this in six to eight months – have you come back saying, ‘it didn’t work’ — because I have a feeling this ordinance isn’t going to work.”

While the ordinance was heavily supported by hospitality industry employees, several hotel managers spoke against the ordinance.

Donald Driscoll, General Manager of The DoubleTree by Hilton Irvine Spectrum, wrote a letter addressed to Irvine City Clerk, Carl Pertersen. In his letter, Mr. Driscoll asked the council to withdraw from a vote, citing that a vote without any hospitality industry ownership involvement is “inappropriate and undemocratic.”

“Our hotel has gone over three hundred days without a lost-time workplace accident, and we pride ourselves on monitoring and maintaining a safe environment for both team members and our guests,” he wrote. “We also provide weekly and daily safety reminders and share these with all team members to keep safety and safe work practices front of mind for all.”

Lynn S. Mohrfeld, President and CEO of the California Hotel and Lodging Association (CHLA) , wrote a letter echoing Mr. Driscoll’s statements. Both letters were submitted into the e-comments prior to the meeting.

Mohrfeld said she was concerned that the new ordinance would impact scheduling, if rooms are made unavailable due to new cleaning mandates.

“CHLA and our Irvine hotel community are extremely concerned that the proposed ordinance you’re considering is not motivated by worker safety concerns. We are also extremely concerned that this ordinance would harm the hospitality industry and our employees who are still recovering from nearly two years of pandemic-related closures that set us and the city back months,” Mohrfeld stated.

Irvine City Council Member and Vice Mayor Anthony Kuo, who voted against the ordinance, said he was disappointed in support on both sides of the ordinance. Kuo took issue with several aspects of the discussion, including the timeline in which he was made aware of the ordinance — and its proximity to the vote.

Kuo said he was made aware of the ordinance on October 13 and received the language of the ordinance on October 21, only four days before the special meeting.

“I started getting emailed on the 13th, the first time I saw the language for this ordinance was Friday, so something is happening; in that language is being disseminated, some people knew about it on the 13th, and some people don’t. Some people are being asked to consider something urgent — that people knew about well in advance,” Kuo said. “That gives me a little bit of pause.”

Another aspect of Kuo’s concern was if hotels had been made aware of the ordinance — he said he had notified some personally, but had the impression that some hotels were not made aware of it.

“I’ve talked to some hoteliers — not all hoteliers — they don’t feel like they’ve been reached out to. We have some hoteliers that have come tonight and said they haven’t had discussions with anyone, and that’s not true, I’ve had discussions with them,” he said.

Kuo said he discovered that communication between the supporters of the ordinance and the hotels had not been occurring in the capacity he imagined. He said he was under the impression that conversations were happening inside a joint committee between the City of Irvine and the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, only to find out the city hadn’t been invited to those meetings for two years.

“I think there’s some mischaracterization on both sides. I think there is a lot of rhetoric tonight.” Kuo said, “I would say to both sides, you have both misrepresented things.”

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