Amid pay gap, New Orleans workers want 'sustainable tourism'

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans' service and hospitality workers are asking for better pay and benefits from a city that drew in billions of dollars last year from the tourists they serve.

Workers and others spoke before the New Orleans Community Development Committee on Tuesday to advocate for "sustainable tourism."

Advocates assert the city's largest economic driver, tourism, is built on the backs of the working poor.

Workers are calling for improved affordable transit, local hiring and apprenticeship programs and representation on City Hall's various committees and boards, news outlets reported. They are also asking for better enforcement of the Living Wage Ordinance, which mandates that workers be paid at least $11.05 an hour and receive seven paid sick days. The council will vote on changing its enforcement Thursday.

"People say when tourism succeeds, everyone succeeds," said Step Up Louisiana's Ben Zucker. "In the New Orleans economy we're finding that to be less and less true."

Orleans Parish has the largest inequitable divide in the state, according to Erika Zucker with Loyola's Workplace Justice Center, pointing to 1 percent of the city earning 29 percent more than the bottom 99 percent.

Jobs in tourism, hospitality, retail and culture account for more than half of all jobs paying $1,250 or less, according to Zucker. Roughly 15,000 people work as servers earning tipped wages, often starting at a base pay of $2.13 from their employer.

Some organizing efforts among the city's service industry have had recent wins unionizing hotels and gaining traction inside City Hall, which pledged support for a health care program after organizers crashed a tourism board meeting earlier this year. But those gains still face a steep climb as the city struggles to support a massive tourism and hospitality workforce facing rising costs of living, stagnant wages, a lack of affordable housing, and a public transit footprint that's been halved over the last decade.