Shift change: How New Orleans hospitality workers are organizing their industry_lowres

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee members and supporters staged a march in the French Quarter Sept. 16.

New Orleans visitors spent nearly $9 billion in the city in 2017.

But so few of those dollars support the vast service industry and cultural economy that draws those dollars and takes care of the more than 18 million visitors who spend them, illustrating a deep divide between hospitality workers and the city’s crucial economic engine.

Workers and culture groups and New Orleans’ service industry union are asking city officials to work towards a “sustainable tourism” model for the city’s largest economic driver, one that ensures better wages, health care, fair scheduling and workplace protections from sexual harassment and wage theft.

Gabriel Bolden, chapter vice president for UNITE HERE Local 23 and an employee of the unionized Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, said she’s fortunate to have a union job with fair wages and a comprehensive health care plan, “but many people in the hospitality and restaurant industry do not have that privilege.”

“Our people deserve the right to health care, respect and a fair living wage,” she said.

A proposal also calls for an improved affordable public transit service that links workers to employment, including the city’s hospitals and downtown restaurants and hotels.

Advocates also are asking for the city’s support behind workforce training and local hiring programs and apprenticeships and for better overall representation at City Hall, with people from hospitality and cultural backgrounds sitting on often-influential boards and commissions, including the newly expanded Human Relations Advisory Commission and powerful entities like the Economic Development Advisory Commission, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Commission and the New Orleans Business Alliance.

Representatives from Step Up Louisiana, UNITE HERE, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) and Loyola University’s Workplace Justice Center asked members of the New Orleans City Council Oct. 2 to consider how city officials can better leverage public dollars to support the thousands of workers they represent.

“People say when tourism succeeds, everyone succeeds,” said Step Up Louisiana’s Ben Zucker. “In the New Orleans economy we’re finding that to be less and less true.”

Organizing efforts among the city's service industry have had recent wins unionizing hotels and gaining traction inside City Hall, which pledged support for a health care program after organizers crashed a tourism board meeting earlier this year. But those gains still face a steep climb as the city struggles to support a massive tourism and hospitality workforce facing rising costs of living, stagnant wages, a lack of affordable housing, and what advocates say is an inadequate public transit footprint.

Orleans Parish has the largest inequitable divide in the state, according to Erika Zucker with Loyola’s Workplace Justice Center, pointing to 1 percent of the city earning 29 percent more than the bottom 99 percent.

More than half of New Orleans residents are the so-called “working poor” as determined by the United Way’s measure of people in Louisiana living below a “asset-limited, income-constrained and employed,” or ALICE, threshold.

Jobs in tourism, hospitality, retail and culture account for more than half of all jobs paying $1,250 or less, according to Zucker. Roughly 15,000 people work as servers earning tipped wages, often starting at a base pay of $2.13 from their employer.

Those industries also increasingly mirror a “gig economy,” often with inconsistent schedules and no safety nets or benefits, including sick leave.

Those kinds of environments make them ripe for sexual harassment, according to pay equity advocate Julie Schwam Harris, who points to the over-representation of women in low-wage hospitality jobs and the disproportionate number of filings of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints by women.

Harris also argued that the often racist and sexist history of tipping in the U.S. continues to resonate in tipped-wage jobs, reinforcing the power imbalance between men and women in the workplace. “We are shamed, blamed, more fearful of reprisal for speaking out on these things,” Harris said.

Members of the City Council’s Economic Development Committee were receptive to the coalition’s pitch, though Zucker added that these kinds of policy and cultural changes are “not possible without all the right people at the table.”

“I do not feel like we can increase the tourism base without offsetting the negative impacts,” said District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, adding that if benefits to the tourism industry aren’t taking into account its employees’ quality of life, “we have to think whether this industry is really supportive” of its workers.

MaCCNO director Ethan Ellestad said the former New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, now New Orleans & Company, had turned down MaCCNO’s pitch to help distribute its Good Visitor Guide, a brochure outlining tipping etiquette and how visitors should approach Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, street performers and pass-the-hat performances in venues.

Palmer and District B Councilmember Jay Banks said they’ll work to correct that.

“No pot of red beans has ever cooked itself,” said District B Councilmember Jay Banks. “There is no magic about the longitude and latitude [attracting people to] New Orleans. It’s the culture.”

Palmer also suggested hotels include a video reiterating the guide’s points that plays in hotel room TVs.

But her “No. 1 priority” is ensuring people who work in the city’s service industry are able to get there, and that they have a safe place to wait for that ride. New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) operator Transdev has budgeted for 50 shelters this year, but it has 309 shelters at its 2,200 stops.

Palmer also suggested adding “circulator” park-and-ride buses connecting people to areas dense with service jobs, and to require developers include bus shelters as part of their building projects in the same way that they often are required to install bike racks and parking.

“We have to re-envision how the city provides services to our workers,” Palmer said. “Humanity and equity for service workers riding the bus, that’s the No. 1 thing we need to talk about.”