Unite Here Ballot Initiative Would Raise Local Minimum Wage to $30 an Hour

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Yesterday, UNITE HERE Local 11 (the union) filed an initiative in Santa Monica that would require hotels to pay their workers $30 an hour. As the union prepares for another round of strikes over what they say are unfairly low wages in an area with higher costs of living than most of the rest of the world and hard and unsafe labor conditions after the COVID-19 shutdown and slow recovery; the union will ask voters for a pay increase that would set a national high mark for a minimum wage.

“I have to work two jobs to be able to live in Santa Monica. Some coworkers live all the way out in Palmdale, Lancaster, San Bernardino or Riverside,” said Salvador Garcia in a press statement, a Santa Monica resident and hotel worker who is serving as one of the official proponents of the initiative.  “I signed onto this initiative so that more of us would have the opportunity to live nearby.”

Once the City Clerk signs off on the submitted language, the union will have 180 days to gather a minimum of about 6,740–approximately 10% of total registered Santa Monica voter–unique valid signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. Only the signatures of registered Santa Monica voters will count toward the 6,740 total Unite Here will need to gather. In short, in a city where the official population is dwarfed by the number of visitors, both tourists and workers, that visit daily; signature gatherers will have to be very careful when asking people to sign the measure.

If the measure reaches the fall ballot, it would likely be voted on in 2024 during either the primary or general election where high voter turnout is expected, boosting the measure’s chances for success. 

However, measures that would create a large change often face a competing ballot measure that is little more than a watered down version of the original piece. In the last election, a transfer tax sponsored by Mayor Sue Himmelrich was on the ballot while a watered down version of her proposal was on the same ballot sponsored by Councilmember Phil Brock. In the end, Himmelrich’s proposal won, but Santa Monica’s electoral history is full of stories of competing ballot measures.

Don’t be surprised if that history repeats itself should the union’s measure earn enough signatures.

To its credit, Santa Moncia already has a higher-than-average minimum wage, with an annual increase raising the wage from $16.90 for regular workers and $19.73 for hotel workers last July 1. Even with this increase, the local minimum wage is well below the local living wage which is defined as “an income level that allows individuals or families to afford adequate shelter, food, and other necessities.” The below chart from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows the “living wage calculator” for Southern California. Even at $30 an hour, hotel workers would be below the living wage for the region in several categories, including the majority that include families with children.

Image via the MIT Minimum Wage Calculator for Southern California in 2023.

While an increase in the wages would likely cause an increase in the cost of a room for the night, Santa Monica’s hotels already cost over $600 a night, and the union believes the hotels can absorb the increased wages with a minimal increase in room rental.

Workers in the union went on strike and picketed outside hotels earlier this month to demand increased wages even as the new increases went into effect because even with the mandated increases, their wages are not keeping up with local housing prices. 

Unite Here Local 11 is also active in other cities throughout Southern California where strikes and possibly similar ballot measures can be expected in cities including Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Long Beach are also pushing similar legislation.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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