Nerexda Soto was twenty-two years old when several years ago a customer of the hotel where she worked in Long Beach, California, began to stalk her. Many of the men who stay at the hotel, she tells me, “come and they see you and they feel as if they own you—that they can make you do anything they want.”
This particular man would ask other hotel employees to see her specifically, then ask her inappropriate things and make dirty jokes. She was expected to smile, and when she didn’t, he would get angry, she says.
“They treat you like an amenity that comes with the room,” Soto says. “We have to deal with it, because we need the tips.”But still, when a representative of her union approached Soto with a survey on workplace harassment, she was skeptical. It was common knowledge that complaints went nowhere and at a previous job, she says, she was fired for complaining—so what was the point?
Eventually, Soto filled out the questionnaire, which was for union workers to identify their most pressing needs. She shared her story and, bolstered by the recognition that others were experiencing similar problems, she began to encourage others to speak out as well. She joined fifteen to twenty other female hotel workers of color to meet with a local council person to tell their stories of sexual harassment on the job. “Every story was worse than the other,” Soto says. “I’m not a crying person, but I was sitting there crying.”
The council person was a woman, and Soto hoped she would champion their cause and fight the hotel industry. Instead, the council person gave the workers her condolences and suggested they get walkie talkies.
Being let down by the politician, Soto tells me, “it lit us on fire.”
Then, in April 2015, Claudia Sanchez, a twenty-year-old Renaissance Hotel dishwasher also in Long Beach, suffered a paralyzing brain hemorrhage after working six hours of overtime on top of a regular eight-hour work shift. Claudia’s story added fuel to the fire and bolstered the workers’ demands for protections against sexual abuse, new workload limits, and a ban on forced overtime. “Women of color, my people are the people getting fucked over. Women that look like me are getting fucked over, and people take advantage of our circumstances,” Soto says.
Hotel workers mobilized, to raise awareness and pressure politicians to act. But Soto says the hotel industry’s political influence and campaign contributions dissuaded the city council from taking any action. “We don’t have money, we’re not rich, we’re workers in the shadows. We can’t afford to line these politicians with money like the hotels can,” she says. “Their money speaks louder than our words.”
So Soto and her colleagues turned to the local ballot initiative process, through which residents can write their own laws and gather signatures to get them on the ballot. Eventually, the workers qualified “Claudia’s Law,” also known as Measure WW, for the November 2018 ballot. It would provide panic buttons for hotel workers, require hotels to post signs alerting guest that workers are protected by law from sexual assault, offer paid breaks to recover after being assaulted, give workers the power to be transferred away from dangerous workplaces, prohibit forced overtime, and establish new workload limits.
For months, Soto knocked on doors, gathered signatures, and urged people to the polls. And despite established opposition, in November Measure WW passed with 62 percent of the vote. Soto, now twenty-six, is a shop steward for her union.
Similar measures, also spearheaded by women of color hotel workers, were also passed in Oakland and Anaheim this past November.
In Oakland, Measure Z passed with 76 percent of the vote to increase hotel workers’ minimum wage to $15/hour with medical benefits or to $20/hour with no benefits. The ordinance, modeled on “Claudia’s Law,” equips hotel workers with panic buttons and establishes new workload and overtime restrictions. The ordinance also creates a municipal department of labor that will enforce the ordinance, and the city’s other wage, labor and employment laws.
Irma Perez, a Measure Z petitioner who has worked as a hotel housekeeper in Oakland for seventeen years, told me she looks forward to the concept spreading to more cities, and industries. “This is just the start,” she told me in Spanish.
A few hundred miles to the south in Orange County, where long-held Republican Congressional seats flipped blue in November, voters passed Measure L, which will raise the minimum wage for people who work in the hospitality industry in Anaheim and Disneyland Resort Specific Plan Zones to $15/hour minimum wage in 2019 and eventually to $18/hour by 2022.
The ordinance, which doesn’t include harassment protections or panic buttons, is aimed at Disneyland and applies only to businesses that have tax rebate agreements with the city of Anaheim. Disney is trying to exempt itself from the ordinance, even giving up two tax incentives it had with the city. But proponents argue Disney must raise its wages, since it has received rebates and benefited from a municipal bond in the 1990s.
In all these instances, voters outside the halls of power were able to circumvent their local political establishments and push through new legislation that will directly improve their lives. Soto says the local ballot initiative process was instrumental. “If we didn’t [have it],” Soto says, “we would have never been able to do this.”