Shawnta Brown of Brooklyn, who took a summer jobs at Skyline Sightseeing selling hop-on hop-off style bus tickets, didn't even get minimum wage, she said. When the 19-year-old started her job, she thought it was for a salary plus commission, but it turned out to be commission only, she said.
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She said she worked about six hours a day, but didn't make nearly enough to cover rent, so she and her daughter live with Brown's mother. A few weeks into the job, she was already applying elsewhere, and questioned whether she was learning new skills. "I guess you could call it training," she said. "It teaches you to interact with people."
'Travel jobs, good jobs'
Indeed, employment in the travel sector is on the rise, increasing 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014 to nearly 7.7 million tourism-related jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Travel officials bristle when pressed about the quality of those jobs.
"Travel jobs are good jobs" Jonathan Tisch, the chairman of Loews Hotels & Resorts told a packed hotels convention this summer, asserting the industry needs to speak with a strong, unified voice. His speech culled heavily from a two-year old report by the U.S Travel Association that portrays travel jobs as all-American, middle-class jobs, and says "2 out of 5 workers who first took a job in the travel industry are earning more than $100,000 per year."
Tisch, in his speech to industry executives, said they need to counter news stories that claim the good jobs before the Great Recession have been replaced with bad jobs. He touched on several of the industry's talking points: that the industry has gained back more jobs than it lost during the recession, that it is keeping jobs in the United States and bringing in foreign spending through tourism.
"Travel is at least on par in importance with agriculture," Tisch said, comparing agriculture and tourism jobs (1.8 million vs. 8 million) and exports ($141 billion vs. $180 billion.) "Some people want travel as a cabinet level post," Tisch said, continuing his dig at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its $150 billion budget, farmer subsidies and 90,000 government employees in 7,000 offices.
That theme was expanded in other sessions at the conference. "The fragmentation in this industry has let so many people exploit it," Lugar of the AHLA said during a session on hotel industry policy issues.
'"If you're not at the table, you're on the menu," Lugar said, by way of encouraging other hotel players to beef up their political action committee contributions and court politicians by touting the industry's jobs that provide access to the American Dream. The PACs for the lodging and tourism industries have made nearly $1.5 million in federal contributions this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings aggregated at the nonpartisan, nonprofit OpenSecrets.org.
"We've been on the defensive for five years in D.C.," said Pratik Patel, the chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which has 12,500 members representing 20,000 hotels.
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In addition to the fight against a raise in the minimum wage, the AHLA's main policy goals are comprehensive immigration reform, renewed funding from Congress for the Brand USA campaign to bring foreign tourists to the U.S., and an extension of the Terror Risk Insurance Act, which otherwise might leave hotels without required coverage by Jan. 1, Lugar said in an interview with CNBC.
But the minimum wage battle, especially in Los Angeles, is primary, she said. For its fight against the "extreme minimum wage," the hotel industry has been working with the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Association and the National Franchisee Association, Lugar told the hotel panelists this summer.
In June, the AHLA issued a report on the effects of raising the minimum wage. An "extreme minimum wage"—which includes President Obama's push for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25—would cause hotels an annual loss of $2.53 billion through extra wages and lost business due to the price increase, said John O'Neill, the report's author and director of the School of Hospitality Management at Pennsylvania State University. Cities and other government groups would lose $70.4 million in hotel occupancy taxes, hotels would have to cut 12,195 hotel staff positions and hotel values would decline more than $1 billion, O'Neill predicts.
To cover an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10, the price of hotel rooms would need to rise by 3.4 percent, according to the report. Based on the national average room rate of $110.33 when the report was issued in June, that translates into an extra $3.75 nightly per room, O'Neill said.