Judge Rejects Challenge to Oakland Hotel Worker Protections

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An Oakland, California, ordinance that sets higher standards for hotel employees’ pay and working conditions is not unconstitutionally vague or pre-empted by U.S. and state laws, a federal judge declared in court Wednesday.

“I just don’t buy it,” U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said of a hotel industry group’s legal claims against Oakland’s voter-backed law, Measure Z.

Approved by 76% of voters in November 2018, Measure Z requires hotels to pay workers at least $15 per hour with health benefits or $20 per hour without benefits. It also mandates giving workers an emergency contact device or “panic button” to report crimes and threats to their safety. Additionally, it forbids making employees clean more than 4,000 square feet of floor space in an eight-hour work day.

It’s the health insurance and workload requirements that the California Hotels and Lodging Association say are pre-empted by state and federal law.

The industry group’s lawyer Aaron Olsen, of Fisher & Phillips in San Diego, said California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, specifically rejected proposals by a hotel workers’ union to limit employees’ workloads.

“Regulating the pace at which workers are doing their work, that would be a regulation that is a safety and health regulation pre-empted by Cal/OSHA,” Olsen argued in court.

Judge Orrick was not persuaded.

“I think Oakland was passing an ordinance to make sure its workers were paid fairly,” Orrick said. “It certainly touches on the issues that you’re describing, but it’s not all bound up in occupational health and safety.”

Orrick was equally dismissive of claims that the inclusion of health benefits in the law’s compensation requirements violates the U.S. Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA.

The judge cited multiple Ninth Circuit rulings, including the appeals court’s 2008 decision in Golden Gate Restaurant Association v. San Francisco, which held that a city law requiring employers spend a certain amount per hour per employee on healthcare was not pre-empted by ERISA.

Orrick also rejected claims that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to adequately define terms such as “cleaning” and “floorspace.”

“We feel the court has reached the correct conclusion here,” said Kristen Rogers of Remcho, Johansen & Purcell in Oakland, representing the city at Wednesday’s hearing.

Unite Here Local 2850, a hotel workers’ union, also intervened in the case to defend Measure Z.

Orrick said he would deny the hotel industry group’s motion for summary judgment and grant the city and union’s motions to dismiss.

Olsen told Orrick he did not need leave to amend the lawsuit because the judge’s problems with the complaint were ” substantive ” rather than “procedural.”

After the hearing, California Hotels and Lodging Association lawyer Jeffery Thurrell, of Fisher & Phillips in Irvine, said no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal Orrick’s decision.

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