Hope falls flat for timely relief from city’s business-busting laws
West Hollywood City Council punted on deciding whether to scale back the mandatory, continuous wage increases and paid time off requirements loathed by local business owners, who came out to the Monday night meeting in droves with high hopes their pleas had finally been heard.
Lacking the decisive fifth vote of Mayor Pro Tem John Erickson, who was off traveling, the council could not reach a consensus on the most controversial provisions of agenda item 5B, which would have exempted full-service restaurants and bars from paying the sky-high minimum wage rate to servers earning their lion’s share in tips. Additionally, it would have reconfigured the accrual rate for the extensive sick leave and paid time off guaranteed to WeHo workers, which even part-time employees currently enjoy.
Mayor Sepi Shyne, who helped craft the policy with labor union UNITE HERE Local 11, and Councilmember Chelsea Byers, an ardent supporter of it, insisted more time and research were needed before changes should be made, and that Erickson should be present for the discussion.
“When we came up with the minimum wage ordinance, there were many meetings with business owners and meetings with workers,” said Shyne, visibly perturbed by frustrated groans and boos coming from the audience at various moments. “Tonight, this is a substantive change without any workers having been consulted.”
Members of UNITE HERE, mostly hotel workers, packed the audience in their familiar red t-shirts to serve as mouthpieces for the union’s top brass in opposing changes to the wage ordinance. Councilmember Lauren Meister reminded her colleagues that these union members were exempt from the proposed new rules they came out to speak against.
“When you say we need to speak to employees,” Meister responded to Shyne, “the group of employees that we really haven’t talked to are the employees at the bars and restaurants.”
Curiously, the honor of reciting the pledge of allegiance before the meeting was given to Danielle Wilson, a leader at UNITE HERE often tasked with defending the union’s aggressive approaches.
In an unusual twist, the red shirts in the crowd were matched by an equal number of black shirts, i.e. the dozens of supporters of the “My WeHo/Keep WeHo Open” campaign organized by the Chamber of Commerce to advocate for the changes.
Addressing that group, Byers said she was not ready to make a decision on the matters Monday night but that the business community’s calls for help were not falling on deaf ears.
“I do hear from this room and from the number of letters that we received, and comments and conversations happening over the last several months, that this one-size-fits-all approach is not serving our community in the best way possible,” Byers said. “I think we do need to give this a bit more time to do that. And I know that that will give us a sense of frustration to folks, but I do feel the sense of divisiveness can be stemmed if we have more meaningful conversations around this.”
While Meister and Councilmember John Heilman were prepared to support the provisions, Byers and Shyne were not, and so they were removed from the proposal package, which included other olive branches to the business community such as the waiving of fees and the conducting of the study referenced by Meister. The revised packaged was approved in a unanimous vote.
City Hall was directed to bring back the wage and time off provisions once the study was complete. City Manager David Wilson estimated that would not happen before April of next year, leaving the upcoming increases to the minimum wage rate to occur as scheduled — dashing the hopes of the black-shirted residents that relief would come anytime soon.
West Hollywood’s business community has been sounding the alarm over the existential threat it’s facing from unaffordable wage increases and the minefield of regulations set forth by City Hall. After years of ignoring their S.O.S., City Hall now seems to be taking it seriously, but the solutions they’re proposing might be tough for City Council to swallow.
Tonight the councilmembers will review a plan to rehabilitate the state of business in West Hollywood, which the Chamber of Commerce believes is in critical condition. The Chamber has been at the forefront of recent efforts to persuade city leaders that a change in direction is needed to save the city’s struggling local businesses, many of which have already succumbed to the economic pressures imposed by West Hollywood’s policies and politics.
The Chamber is rallying local business owners, their employees and other concerned citizens to address City Council directly tonight, starting with a 4 p.m. huddle at La Boheme to go over the game plan, part of the “My WeHo/Keep WeHo Open” awareness campaign.
“WeHo’s businesses have reached a critical tipping point in their survival and as costs of doing business sharply rise, residents are finding it more and more difficult to afford shopping, eating, and playing local — or that their favorite go-to spots have closed,” the campaign’s manifesto reads. “We are losing what makes this city special — our neighborhood-serving places.”
The Chamber has asked the city to hold off on a wage increase tied to the Consumer Price Index set to go into effect next year; to eliminate paid time off for part time workers and reduce it for full-time workers; and to include tips and commissions when calculating the wages restaurants must pay their waitstaff.
City Hall is convinced it’s the right way to go.
Their proposal would create a separate minimum wage rate for full-service restaurants and bars, contingent upon the provision that all employees receive a living compensation equal to or greater than the West Hollywood Minimum Wage Rate. It’s the type of nuanced approach that detractors say was lacking from the controversial ordinance passed two years ago which gave WeHo the highest minimum wage rate in the nation.
The item would also institute a moratorium on new minimum wage increases through the year 2025 or an alignment with the City of Los Angeles’ wage policies. This recommendation is noteworthy as it indicates a strategic pause in wage increases, allowing businesses time to adjust and stabilize in the post-pandemic economic climate. It also suggests a synchronization of wage policies with the larger metropolitan area, allowing WeHo retailers to remain competitive with their rivals across the city limits.
The proposal specifically acknowledges the “critical state of business” in WeHo as described by the Chamber. A separate staff report includes notes on the many one-on-one discussions city staffers have had with individual businesses in town, whose specific concerns almost surely persuaded City Hall to propose these big changes. Nearly all the city’s major hotels, along with restaurants and retailers including Catch L.A., Anawalt Lumber and Strings of Life Cafe, told the city that the wage ordinances were creating problems (although Target and LAZ Parking reported that higher wages had actually helped them attract and retain employees).
While City Hall’s proposal might inspire optimism in WeHo’s business community, the real question remains whether it can get approved by City Council.
While moderate-leaning Councilmembers Lauren Meister and John Heilman are almost sure to support the proposal, the council’s progressive majority — Mayor Sepi Shyne, Mayor Pro Tem John Erickson and Councilmember Chelsea Byers, standing in for former Councilmember Lindsey Horvath — remain staunchly in support of the current policies they helped devise in 2021 with controversial labor union UNITE HERE Local 11.
Opposition to the policies in the years since has only hardened their positions.
A “yes” vote by any of the three would represent a major political re-alignment, potentially undermining their solidarity with big labor interests and thus the union’s crucial support in their re-election bids. At least one defection would be required for the proposal to pass.
Erickson will go back before the voters next year, and so will Shyne should she fail to make the runoff election in her race for Congress. Byers’ term ends in 2026.