Laguna Beach voters to consider hotel worker wage hike, development initiatives

Pacific Edge Hotel, 647 S. Coast Hwy., is among the Laguna Beach properties that have obtained approvals for major remodels and additions in the last year. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Correction: Due to a reporting error an earlier version of this story misstated the wages offered to employees of The Ranch. The employees are currently offered a wage higher than the new minimum proposed in the ballot initiative. The Independent regrets the error.

Laguna Beach voters will weigh in on two ballot initiatives in the November election that could have significant impacts on the hospitality economy.

The first would set an $18 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers and see that wage annually increase by a dollar per hour until 2026. The second would require a public vote on new hotel construction, major remodels, and some minor remodels.

Both initiatives are supported by a political action committee formed last October and sponsored by the Southern California hospitality workers union UNITE HERE Local 11.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday to place both initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot. State law allows city councils the option to adopt certified initiatives into city law but councilmembers chose not to do this.

“We are disappointed that the City Council decided to stand with the hotel owners rather than the voters, housekeepers, dishwashers, and cooks. We’ll do it at the ballot box,” Ada Briceño, co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11 said late Tuesday.

Kurt Bjorkman, general manager of the Ranch at Laguna Beach, spoke on behalf of
Visit Laguna and several fellow hotel operators encouraging the City Council to move forward with a November vote.

“We’d just like to be able to share our stories,” he said.

Bjorkman added that the Ranch currently pays full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees more than the minimum wage proposed in the initiative.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen supported sending both initiatives before the voters, especially to support struggling hotel workers.

“I for one think they need to be working for more than minimum wage. It sounds like they are. They work hard. They’re tough jobs. They deserve good working conditions,” he said.

However, he called the right to vote initiative on hotel development a “head-scratcher” and said he’s personally opposed to it and the Laguna Residents First initiative. Mayor Sue Kempf joined in the skepticism.

“I don’t think it’s necessary and I actually think it’s counterproductive. It’s not going to help our hotel industry. It’s not going to help our economy and I don’t think it’s going to help the employees. The better hotels we have the better they’re going to pay.”

Laguna Beach hotel projects already have to clear multiple public hearings at city hall and the California Coastal Commission before they can break ground. Business community leaders argue these offer more than enough opportunities for residents to voice their concerns about the impacts of intensified hotel operations.

Some residents of Sleepy Hollow opposed a major remodel of Pacific Edge Hotel over concerns about how traffic and parking would be impacted in their neighborhood after the addition of 25 guest rooms, new conference areas, outdoor dining, and a new cafe The Coastal Commission unanimously voted in October to find substantial issue with the project

Councilmember Peter Blake took a more forceful stance against the hospitality union-supported campaigns.

“I’m adamantly opposed to a vote of the people determining what the capitalist system is going to pay its staff. Right now, it’s impossible for a lot of these hotel and restaurant owners to get people to work for them so they’re paying so much more than normal… We all know what this is about. This is just about the unionization of our hotels in Laguna Beach and we’re being fed this concept that it’s good for the residents of Laguna Beach,” Blake said.

Briceño declined to respond to Blake’s comments Tuesday.

According to an April report released by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, U.S. hotel business travel revenue is projected to be down 23% this year compared to pre-pandemic, ending the year with $20 billion less in revenue compared to 2019. Conference and other business-related travel have historically been a significant part of Laguna Beach hotels’ revenue, Visit Laguna reports.

In April 2020, Laguna Beach allowed hotel operators to defer their transient occupancy tax payments for months to offset the impacts of COVID-19 forces closures. Overnight stays surged back last summer as visitors sought relief after quarantining at home. This year’s high season will likely be critical for the industry’s continued recovery.

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