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A Better San Diego, a labor-backed nonprofit, held the latest in its series of community breakfast forums on Friday, April 19, hosting a panel of speakers focusing on living wages in San Diego, particularly zeroing in on wages of hotel staff in the wake of recent labor unrest and controversy over Mayor Bob Filner’s reluctance to execute a Tourism Marketing District agreement giving hoteliers control over millions of dollars in marketing funds. Filner had sought, but later withdrew a request to include a provision to require hotels to pay a “living wage” as a condition of being allowed to collect and control TMD revenues.

Peter Brownell, who was recently appointed research director at the Center on Policy Initiatives, says that the $1.4 billion hotel industry employs about 15,000 people in the region. Full-time hotel workers have a median income of about $25,000 – 15% of them, Brownell said, fall below the federal poverty line, 39% do not earn what the group considers a subsistence-level wage of $13.92 hourly for a single individual with no children. At least eight percent of workers are currently collecting food stamps.

“When hotels don’t pay a wage that supports the full cost of living for hotel employees, someone else has to pick up that tab,” says Brownell. “Basically that amounts to a subsidy to the hotel owners, and we think that an industry that’s bringing in $1.4 billion annually doesn’t need a subsidy from taxpayers.”

Brigette Browning, president of the local UNITE-HERE hospitality industry workers’ union, who has filed a lawsuit against the city council alleging that TMD fees constitute an illegal tax, said that union hotel workers in San Diego were paid an average of $14 hourly, meeting CPI’s subsistence wage but falling short of a $20 average in San Francisco. Only 23% of hotels in the region are currently unionized.

“I find it demoralizing when people act like hotel jobs are bad jobs. They shouldn’t be bad jobs,” said Browning, noting that the relatively low unionization rate limits the need for other employers to compete for talent by offering comparable employment terms.

Leticia Nava, who was fired by the Hilton Mission Valley shortly after ending a hunger strike protesting the use of the voluntary federal E-Verify system, attests to the numbers as presented by Browning. After two years on the job, she says she had received raises bringing her pay to $8.86 an hour, and was expected to clean between 16-18 rooms per 8 hour shift as part of her job.

She says that in recent days she’s interviewed for several other hotel industry housekeeping positions, and has found starting wages for full-time positions to range from $8.00 to $8.50 hourly.

“Can a worker live on that amount of money?” asked Nava.

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