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LA hotel workers strike for better housing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One of the reasons thousands of people who work at hotels in Los Angeles have been striking is less about the workplaces themselves and more about how far they are from home. Housing costs in LA are high, so workers often have to live far from the hotels where they work. And as Danielle Kaye reports, workers are asking hotels to step in.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: For 14 years, Brenda Mendoza has been a uniform attendant at the upscale JW Marriott Hotel in downtown LA. She's paid $25 an hour to handle staff uniforms and linen and all sorts of housekeeping tasks. These days, she gets up at 3 in the morning to make it to work on time. She has to drop off her husband and son at their jobs in the city, too.

BRENDA MENDOZA: When I get out of work, it takes me about two hours, almost three hours to get home.

KAYE: The long pre-dawn commute, Mendoza says, takes a toll on her family's quality of life. It's also expensive. They spend a lot more on gas. It wasn't always like this. Mendoza was born and raised in Koreatown, just a 10-minute drive from the Marriott with its sweeping city views.

MENDOZA: The rents started increasing so much, I ended up having to move from Koreatown to Downey. And then last year, I ended up moving to Apple Valley because my rent was almost $3,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.

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KAYE: Downey was about 15 miles away. Apple Valley, where she now lives, is almost 100 miles northeast of the hotel. This increasingly long commute for Mendoza and many of her colleagues is a big reason why they've been on rolling strikes for the past three months.

MENDOZA: Rents are going high. Properties are high. We're not able to even own a property here in LA.

KAYE: The union contract for some 15,000 workers - housekeepers, cooks, front desk agents - at about 60 hotels expired at the end of June. Since then, their union has been fighting for pay raises of more than $10 an hour. That would come out to a roughly 40% pay raise for Mendoza. But the union is also asking hotels for something unique and directly tied to housing, a hospitality workforce housing fund. The idea is for hotels to charge a 7% fee on all guest rooms, money that would help workers with their housing costs.

KURT PETERSEN: In Los Angeles, if every hotel paid 7%, it would be $150 million a year. That actually could pay, we think, for 2,000 to 3,000 units of new construction.

KAYE: That's Kurt Petersen, co-president of the Unite Here Local 11 union. He says the details of the fund still need to be worked out. It could be used for affordable housing construction or for low-interest loans, for instance. And the 7% fee could potentially replace existing fees on guests. But the hotels, he says, haven't been willing to even discuss the proposal.

PETERSEN: The only people in Los Angeles who don't want to talk about housing are the owners of the hotels. Everyone else recognizes it's a problem.

KAYE: The hotels feel it's not their responsibility to get housing for their employees. They don't think it should be part of any bargaining over compensation and benefits. A spokesperson for the coalition of hotels told NPR this extra tax on guests would be an unfair burden on only the city's unionized hotels when all of them face the same problem. But workers say the businesses that employ them can play a role in alleviating the housing crisis, as public policy has failed to adequately address it. According to Zillow, the median rent in Los Angeles is nearly $3,000 a month.

THOMAS KOCHAN: Given the high cost of housing and the crisis that many workers and families are facing, this will be something that will be more common.

KAYE: That's Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT. He says Unite Here's approach is innovative and could address housing affordability in a creative way. Employers, too, have to see it as being in their interest for workers to live close to their jobs. But the LA hotels don't seem to be there quite yet.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Kaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "FOOTPRINTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.