The second story on tourism published in November 1987 examined what the growing industry really meant for the city, and its people, especially those who toiled on the front lines in low-wage hospitality jobs.
by C.C. Campbell-Rock
With so many businesses and the government economically dependent on tourism, it isn’t hard to understand why so many millions of dollars have been devoted to boosting the city’s second largest income generating industry.
HOW THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS BENEFITS
The city of New Orleans benefits principally from a 1 percent tax on the value of the hotel rooms per night. In 1986, the city collected $3,750,000 in hotel taxes.
Property taxes are also levied on CBD properties (where most of the tourism and hospitality industry-related businesses are located); but there has been much controversy surrounding whether those properties have been properly assessed. And with the current investigation, solid figures were not available.
THE EMPLOYMENT PICTURE
According to the state’s Department of Labor analyst, Allen Johnson, Sr., “Things are getting better; unemployment dropped 5 percent since January 1987,” Johnson attributed the increase of jobs to the stabilization of oil and gas prices, a statewide recovery (a lot of businesses are expanding and investing).
“The tourism program in New Orleans is outstanding,” he said, citing such tourist draws as the Riverwalk, Jax Brewery and successful events like the Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Racetrack (when the season is in). “And employment in tourism is improving gradually,”
Johnson provided the following figures relative to employment in tourism-related industries in New Orleans.
In the area of retail trade, 101,900 were employed in August 1987, up by 1,100 jobs; in the service area (hotels, motels, amusement, etc.). 131,400 were employed in August, up by 1,100 jobs, Johnson credits Lt. Gov. Bobby Freeman’s office for doing a more efficient job in increasing employment in tourism and hospitality industry.
Regarding wages, Johnson said the average service industry worker in Orleans Parish made $351.66 weekly in 1986, retail trade workers made $215.11 weekly. And while the figures look good on the surface, one must not overlook the layoffs, seasonal downturns and whether tips are good or not.
Actually, when you discuss wages in the tourism and hospitality industry it is important to note that the seasonal aspect can make for an erratic family budget.
“The real question for those who live and work here is what do you really make a year,” Wade Radke, executive director of the Service Employees International Union- Local 1000, said.
“The work is seasonal and workers don’t get 40 hours in most weeks anyway. So what do you end up making?” Radke quoted data the union collected on the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which it was trying to unionize.
He drew a case analysis. “We had all the employee lists on the Hyatt, which was fairly successful, had good occupancy rates (about 80 percent during 1983-84: and in the period in which they were doing so well, the top workers were averaging about $8,000 a year.”
TOURISM; BOONDOGGLE OR ECONOMIC STIMULANT?
Judging from the data collected, the tourism industry has the potential for being a great economic stimulant.
But as it now stands, the industry is a “boon” for owners and managers and a boondoggle for the city and its citizenry.
Yet with the proper vision, planning and cooperation, the city can reap massive benefits from tourism.
But that won’t happen until hotel occupancy taxes are raised, wages are increased significantly, property taxes are equitable, and until those in the industry start putting something back into the community.
When was the last time you saw a major hotel a restaurant underwriting a community event? When was the last time you heard of tourist related businesses procuring goods and services from Black vendors? When was the last time you heard a Black contractor or architect was the general contractor on any of the new hotels that went up in the past 10 years? When was the last time you heard of the hotels training Blacks for the higher management positions?
The bottom line is that, as it stands now, the city of New Orleans is getting the shaft and the citizenry, which is over 60 percent Black and makes up the majority of the hotel industry’s workforce, is hosting a party to which it hasn’t been invited.
“It’s a sad situation. As long as people believe the myth that the city rises and falls on room rates, we are going to have big, visible tourist city where the tourist dollar only trickles down a little bit,” Radke said. “As long as the city’s leadership believes that tourism adds up to more jobs, nobody’s asking the hard questions. What kinds of jobs are those? What happens to the people in those jobs? There is a reason why New Orleans has the lowest per capita income of any of the top 50 metropolitan areas. Sooner or later people have to put it together that 1 + 1 does = 2. If you have a city where 15,000 to 20,000 jobs are based in the hospitality industry and those jobs are low-wage service jobs—you’re going to have a city that has the lowest capita income in the country.
Radke continued, “The irony to me is this: if wages went up $2.00 an hour for every hotel worker in the city, who in the city would be hurt? Unless you’re the owner of the hotel, no one. If wages go up, the room rates go up. Who would that hurt? The cost would be passed on to the tourist. They’ll still come. “
Perhaps it is time for city and industry leaders to walk a mile in the average hotel and hospitality industry workers shoes. Perhaps they will understand what needs to be done…when they consider what type of lifestyle a person is forced to live, at $8,000 a year.
This city will never be truly great unless the whole benefits. Enough said.