Hospitality workers crash tourism board meeting, call for expanded health care options

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At a May 15 board meeting for economic development group New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, a boisterous group of hospitality workers and their supporters staged a demonstration and called for better treatment of workers in the city's powerful hospitality and tourism sector.

Around 30 demonstrators, including members of New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee (NOHWC), New Orleans Workers Group and the People's Assembly, assembled at the public meeting held in a coolly anonymous meeting room upstairs at Manning's Eat-Drink-Cheer. Via a series of short statements to the board, they outlined the story of a restaurant worker who now is critically ill because she couldn't afford health insurance.

Organizers called for the retirement of that worker's medical debt and for the creation of a free health care clinic for industry workers, paid for by the city's 13 percent hotel occupancy tax.

"How dare you justify that with all these millions that you're taking ... [workers have] no sick days, no vacations, no pensions?" New Orleans Workers Group organizer Gavrielle Gemma said. "This is the beginning of a movement that's going to hold this city accountable."

The demonstration was part of a series of events over the past several months that have indicated organizing among the 88,000 hospitality industry workers in the metropolitan area. NOHWC has staged several demonstrations and marches, including a march against sexual harassment that ended with in a confrontation with management at a Frenchmen Street nightclub where a worker said she had been harassed. In January, mobilized strip club workers garnered national media attention with activism protesting law enforcement raids that put hundreds out of work.

Elsewhere, workers have moved to unionize at a number of hotels and restaurants, including successful union drives at Hilton New Orleans Riverside and Harrah's New Orleans Hotel and Casino, which was just visible through the window at today's meeting.

In their statements to the board, workers criticized the way an ever-more-profitable New Orleans tourism industry has not seen its gains trickle down to workers. As a recent press release from New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau announced, 17.74 million visitors to the city spent $8.7 billion in its economy in 2017 — but workers said that just means longer hours and harder work, on wages that don't feel like they're growing.

"It could never be done without us ... [but] workers in this industry continue to barely scrape by," Lita Farquhar, an organizer with NOHWC, said. She read from a long list of the types of workers, including dancers, musicians, barkers, door staff, valets, tour guides, cabbies and others whose combined efforts are necessary to make the industry run smoothly, and enumerated the systemic problems — including inadequate child care and faltering public transit — that make it hard for them to get ahead.

Several speakers returned to the story of the uninsured restaurant worker, who recently was hospitalized at University Medical Center and has been told her delaying treatment (due to lack of health insurance) has endangered her chances of survival. Health care is a particular sticking point for the hospitality industry, where insurance coverage isn't always offered by employers and paid sick days are rare.

"Working while sick is disgusting and a huge public health issue ... [but] these poverty wages can't afford you a trip to the hospital," Lily Moore, a hospitality industry worker, told the board.

The group told the board it expected a response to its proposal of a free clinic within 10 days. Chanting "We are the ones who make your profit; we are dying when you can stop it," the group filed out, its organizers accepting a business card from board member and At-Large New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams. 

In a short phone interview after the meeting, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation President Mark Romig said he "deeply appreciated" the workers' attendance at the meeting.

Though he said he had to confer with other members of the board, he said he's "very open" to meeting further with the group to discuss their concerns.

"I'm glad they were here, and I'm glad they spoke their truth. ... I respect what they're doing, and I appreciate their passion," he said.

NOHWC organizer Ashlee Pintos said the hospitality group plans to apply further pressure if they don't receive a response within their proposed timeline, emphasizing that "workers create the possibility of tourism."

"I don't think they're really taking [this] seriously. I hope that they do," she said. 

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