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Hotel workers accuse LAX Hilton of circumventing L.A.'s 'living wage' law

June 16, 2010 |  4:54 pm
The Hilton Los Angeles Airport hired scores of workers through a subcontractor in an illegal scheme to circumvent a city law mandating that airport-area hotel employees receive a “living wage,” according to a lawsuit announced Wednesday.

The civil suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of some 150 current and former hotel workers allegedly cheated out of legal wages, seeks back pay for affected employees and a court injunction mandating that Hilton comply with the city living wage laws in the airport area.

The suit alleges that Hilton maintained a dual and unequal payment system that resulted in contracted housekeepers and other employees being paid substantially less than workers hired directly by Hilton. The scheme was meant to get around the living wage ordinance, said Marc Coleman, an attorney representing the employees. As much as $1 million, including penalties and interest payments, could be due the workers, Coleman said.

“It isn’t fair that we were paid less for doing the same work,” said Rosa Guadalupe Sorto, 25, a former housekeeper who is a lead plaintiff and appeared at a news conference outside City Hall announcing the lawsuit.

An official at the Hilton LAX said she had not seen the complaint and could not comment. The 1,234-room hotel is among Los Angeles’ largest.
A 2007 city ordinance requires that hospitality businesses in the so-called LAX Corridor pay workers a living wage, currently $11.55 an hour or $10.30 an hour with health benefits. The living wage, which is adjusted annually, compares favorably with California’s current hourly minimum wage of $8.

The adoption of living wage ordinances has been a major goal of organized labor in Los Angeles and other cities nationwide. Unions have used their political muscle to press for such laws across the country. Businesses often oppose the laws as costly and burdensome. Labor advocates argue that families can barely survive on minimum-wage jobs. The laws typically apply to firms that do direct business with local governments.

However, the 2007 airport ordinance was significant, and especially controversial, in that it extended living wage protections to about a dozen airport-area hotels that did not have contracts with the city. Proponents argued that street improvements and other public investments in the airport corridor merited the living wage mandate. The City Council approved the ordinance in February 2007. Business groups sued to block the ordinance, but the law was upheld in court.

Organized labor is not involved directly in the suit but supports the workers’ case, said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman with Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. Local 11 has been boycotting the LAX Hilton as part of a long-time drive to unionize the hotel. The lawsuit is not linked to the organizing drive or the boycott, Local 11 says.

-- Patrick J. McDonnell at Los Angeles City Hall