Critics: Seattle Hotel Measure I-124 Draconian, And Has Sketchy Waiver Clause

Critics: Seattle Hotel Measure I-124 Draconian, And Has Sketchy Waiver Clause
If put before voters and approved, Initiative 124 in Seattle would impose new labor mandates and costs on larger hotels. But the fine print allows a waiver for most requirements if employees join a union and reach a collective bargaining agreement with employers. Seen here: downtown Seattle. Photo: wikimedia.org.

A major U.S. labor union local is advancing a Seattle ballot measure, Initiative 124 (I-124), which purports to help hotel housekeepers. However, industry sources say it is poorly crafted and draconian. I-124 would mandate barring guests accused of assault, after a statement from the accuser. It would also require extra health care payments for workers. There is more. The fine print reveals the hard-ball provisions may actually be a gambit to boost union membership.

That is because a provision allows employers to avoid the requirements if covered employees unionize, and reach a collective bargaining agreement with the hotel.

I-124 is sponsored by UNITE HERE Local 8. It is the Northwest branch of a broad North American union representing workers in hotels, restaurants, food service and airport concession jobs.

The signature gathering hurdle has been cleared. It appears headed to voters in November, according to City Hall sources.

If I-124 passes, hotels with 60 or more guest rooms would have to meet a number of requirements. These include:

  • Provide panic buttons to hotel employees providing in-room services;
  • Require hotel employers to keep for five years a list of guests accused of physical or sexual assault against hotel staff;
  • banning guests for at least three years if a sworn statement follows the accusation.

At hotels with 100 or more rooms:

  • Employees performing housekeeping duties would be prevented from cleaning guest rooms totaling more than 5,000 square feet in an eight-hour shift;
  • Hotels would be required to pay $200 a month in additional wages per covered employee for family healthcare costs, or in some cases a greater amount;
  • If hotel management changes, the new employer would be required to grant right of first refusal to current staff when filling job slots.

Fairness To Guests

Jillian Henze, local communications manager for the Washington Lodging Association and Seattle Restaurant Association, told Lens, “We are concerned about some overreaching elements of Initiative 124. This measure would mean hotel guests who are simply accused of harassment would be blacklisted without notification or due process.”

Jenne Neptune, president of the Seattle Hotel Association, said assault is a rare occurrence for hotel workers because hotels have regulations in place to protect workers, such as not allowing a worker to enter a guest room with the door closed.

Abby Lawlor, strategic researcher for Local 8, said in a statement, “By placing this measure on the ballot and passing it into law, voters will send a strong message that Seattle protects women.”

Lens asked Local 8 for statistics on physical and sexual abuse of hotel housekeepers in Seattle, but did not receive a reply.

Healthcare, Workload Mandates Prompt Concern

About the health care spending mandate, Henze said, “All Seattle hotels already comply with the Affordable Care Act. Many go above and beyond and provide additional health benefits including gold-level benefits packages, gym membership discounts, stop smoking support, mental health treatment and health and wellness training. Adding additional requirements on one industry, above the Affordable Care Act, doesn’t make sense.”

Workload limits are another point of contention. Neptune told Lens the 5,000-square-foot daily limit would be hard to implement since hotel employers don’t give assignments in square footage. Employers could look at a limit on the number of beds instead, said Neptune.

An Escape Clause If Workers Join Union

However, much of the initiative can be undone if workers unionize, suggesting the ballot measure is actually a lever on employers and a stealth strategy to boost union membership.

According to Part 7, if employees unionize and reach a joint contract agreement with their hotel, then all provisions of I-124 can be waived except for those on assault accusations and guest blacklisting.

Erin Shannon, director of the Center for Small Business at Washington Policy Center, told Lens the I-124 waiver clause would result in a “lose-lose situation” for hotel workers in Seattle.

“Unions benefit because they have more dues-paying members. The employer benefits because they can negotiate less strict standards. The worker has a good chance of ultimately losing their benefits and protections,” said Shannon.

Similar ‘Carve-Outs’ In L.A., San Fran

Shannon told Lens I-124 is shaping up to mirror what is happening in Los Angeles. There, unions are seeking similar exemptions for their members after a successful minimum wage organizing drive.

“Workers in L.A. didn’t realize unionizing would exempt them from the minimum wage law…they are paying union dues and earning lower minimum wage than workers across the street who aren’t unionized,” said Shannon.

An exemption for unionized workforces was also part of a so-called “fair scheduling” ordinance for hourly workers at qualifying employers in San Francisco, and could become part of a similar city council measure being considered in Seattle.

Union membership in Washington state peaked in 1993 at 23.8 percent of the workforce, and in 2015 stayed at an all-time low hit the year before, of 16.8 percent. In Washington, 12 percent of private sector workers are in unions, versus 57 percent in the public sector.

I-124 is moving forward. The King County Department of Elections granted it a certificate of sufficiency on July 15. It said 21,679 of the more than 30,000 signatures submitted were found to be from registered voters, and thus valid. Only 20,638 were needed. The Seattle City Council has until August 1 to either pass the initiative into city law, reject I-124, fail to act on the measure, or formulate a different measure dealing on the same subject.

The last three options would put I-124 before voters on the November ballot. That is what is most likely to happen, according to a City Hall source.

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