Tourism Workers May Have Few Options
By Jeff Thomas
COVID 19 has forever changed our lives. Some changes are required – social distancing, frequent 30 second handwashing, masks for vulnerable people. Others might require a fight, testing old battle lines. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. Race, class and economics all collide in this test of the tourist economy in New Orleans and ultimately our state.
New Orleans is the economic engine of the state of Louisiana. For every dollar NOLA sends to Baton Rouge, she receives 54 cents back. And every other parish in Louisiana gets some of the .46 New Orleans tourism dollars. In fact, the entire state budget is balanced every two years on money generated in New Orleans. Consequently, every Louisiana resident benefits from the tourism money generated in the Big Easy.
Local and national businesses employ thousands of low wage workers who often toil two jobs in hotels, restaurants, and bars in and around the French Quarter. This grimy underbelly girds the industry with hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The state relies upon this money. Conventions and big events are the other legs of the tourism stool in NOLA. These three sectors comprise the business structure that employ the taken for granted front-line workers, who help host and entertain our tourists.
Confronted with an uncertain future, the entire tourism industry and our state’s budget face incredible disruption. Many experts predict tourism will not rebound until next year. And when it does, no one is sure how many people will be willing to travel to a hotspot like New Orleans was during this pandemic. The entire restaurant business must change. So, not only will our low wage tourism workers be possibly without income, the entire state budget must grapple with dramatic shortfalls.
Remarkably against this backdrop, front-line tourism workers may demand living wages. The unemployment income provided by the federal government has boosted the income of our tourism workers to living wage levels. And the risk of contracting the virus from travelers adds new levels of risk. Will we have jets flying overhead to honor these brave souls or will the business leaders try to dismiss or diminish the heroic acts of those serving food and drinks in the French Quarter?
And how does the rest of the state react to the decreased tax revenue from the city? Increasing the state minimum wage might be tough. Will New Orleans area legislators even get another chance to change state law to permit just NOLA to mandate a living wage? Will business leaders claim that businesses are faced with lower than ever income and seek to cut costs not increase them? What happens when unemployment runs out?
COVID19 has affected us all. But the state economy may get the biggest jolt.