L.A. living wage law is upheld

Times Staff Writer

A controversial law that requires hotels near Los Angeles International Airport to pay a so-called living wage was upheld by a state appeals court panel Thursday, providing a significant victory for elected officials and the labor interests that have long sought the ordinance.

The 3-0 ruling by a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles means that the city can now implement a law that would provide salary and benefits equal to $10.64 an hour to workers at a dozen LAX-area hotels. The law had been struck down in May by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe, who sided with business interests and ruled that the city had not made sufficient changes from an earlier version of the ordinance.

The law is groundbreaking because living wage laws in the United States are usually applied to government contractors. The law in Los Angeles went a step further, targeting the hotels because they generate so much business from the city-owned airport.


Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hailed the decision as a victory.

“I have always supported the alternative ordinance, which the court upheld today, because it balances the right of workers to receive a living wage with the concerns and needs of business,” he said in a statement issued by his press office.

The law will most immediately affect about half of the 3,500 hotel workers, with the other half already making more than $10.64 an hour. But periodic cost-of-living adjustments to the living wage probably will result in a raise for most of the 3,500 workers.

It remained far from clear whether the appeals court ruling would end the dispute. Harvey Englander, a lobbyist for the LAX hotels, said his clients were still reviewing the ruling. He also said the case was being followed closely by business interests across the state who were unhappy with its precedent.

“We’re considering a lot of options, including referendums, initiatives and appeals,” Englander said.

Brendan Huffman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., also criticized the ruling.

“This ruling legalizes political bait-and-switch tactics,” he said. “Over 100,000 voters signed petitions to qualify a referendum” against the ordinance, “and the City Council found a way to quash the referendum and keep the wage ordinance.”


The ordinance had long been sought by Unite Here, a union that is attempting to organize workers at the hotels covered by the ordinance, as well as labor interests in the city. The most notable proponent was Maria Elena Durazo, the former head of Unite Here Local 11 and now the chief of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which has shown a willingness to spend thousands of dollars on city political campaigns.

The council passed the first law in late 2006, and Villaraigosa quickly signed it. Hotel owners and business leaders from across the city cried foul, arguing that the council was doing an end run around the state minimum wage, which is $7.50 an hour.

The hotel owners then gathered signatures to put a referendum on the law on this year’s May ballot. Faced with that threat, and the expense of holding a citywide election, Villaraigosa and the council agreed to rescind the first ordinance and replace it with one intended to appease business concerns.

The new ordinance had some incentives for businesses near the airport -- such as money for street beautification -- and wording that promised that the council would not try to extend the law to other parts of the city. Business interests sued, arguing that the two ordinances were similar and that the council had merely been trying to avoid a nasty referendum fight.

The appeals court, however, ruled that although the two ordinances had similar passages, the second was notably different and addressed concerns raised by hotel owners and business interests. The judges also said the council even agreed to suspend the ordinance if a study of its effects was not conducted within a specified time frame.

“We spent a lot of time negotiating with [business interests] trying to reach an accommodation,” said James Elmendorf, the policy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the labor-backed group that has fought for the law. “We assume there is very little anyone can do to convince hotels that paying workers fairly is the right thing to do, so we have to keep the pressure on.”