|By Anna Sowa, The Bulletin, Bend, Ore.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 22, 2005 - Improving state rest areas was one hurdle Oregon's tourism and hospitality industry jumped over in the last legislative session, but now it needs to combat other political issues -- like escalating minimum wages -- to remain competitive, industry officials said Monday.
Those were among numerous calls to action outlined at the first joint meeting of the Oregon Lodging Association (OLA) and Oregon Restaurant Association (ORA). It concludes today at Sunriver Resort.
Legislation that would enact "tip wages" is critical to assisting the state's $6.9 billion-a-year tourism industry, proponents said. Tip wages would set food servers' wages at $7.25 per hour because tips would raise their effective hourly pay, they said.
Currently, servers' wages increase with the state's minimum wage, which increases periodically based on the Consumer Price Index. The state labor commissioner announced Friday that the minimum wage would increase from $7.25 an hour to $7.50 in January.
"The tip wage is about giving business owners tax breaks for employees who exceed the minimum wage with their tips," JoDee Phillips, regional representative for the restaurant and lodging associations, said in an interview during the conference. "With service costs, the industry is hurt by that."
Mark Severson, who has worked in food service for more than 30 years and is not an ORA member, supports a tip-credit wage.
"It's really a good thing to do because with the minimum wage going up, it's getting tougher and tougher to make ends meet in the food-service industry," he said.
Speakers at the convention acknowledged the potential political power of the growing tourism and hospitality industry.
Food and lodging industry issues need organization and unification behind common legislative interests if the industry is to grow and improve, Connie Hunt, chairwoman of the restaurant association's board of directors, told the roughly 500 industry representatives in attendance.
"We need a leadership presence to mobilize the OLA and ORA," Hunt said.
"Hospitality is the cornerstone of the Oregon economy, communities and the employment base. So we must establish our visibility in the hospitality industry."
Hunt suggested the OLA and ORA establish an alliance of industry organizations to put industry issues on the minds of policy-makers and opinion-shapers.
"Put hospitality leadership networks in the Oregon centers of influence," Hunt encouraged. "Work for connectiveness, vision and trust within the industry."
Keynote speakers discussed the most recent legislative activity, which outlined more than 50 of the 400-plus bills OLA and ORA were trying to pass or block.
According to industry representatives, victories from the past legislative session include:
--Reducing unemployment insurance rates.
--Blocking the use of unredeemed gift cards for school funding.
--Offering film production companies a state tax credit if they spend at least $1 million in Oregon over the duration of the project.
--Implementing a 1 percent transient lodging tax to generate revenue for national promotion of Oregon's tourism opportunities.
--Changing a bill that would require all lodging properties in a tsunami zone to post and distribute educational warning material from mandatory to voluntary compliance.
--Improving the atmosphere and appearance of state rest areas.
--Allowing RVs to remain in parks as long as the tenant and landlord agree and the RV is appropriately attached to water, sewer and electrical connections.
--Elimination of Sports Action, an Oregon Lottery game that allows citizens to wager on NFL football games.
--Defeating a bill that would have made serving foie gras a crime.
--Preventing the lowering of the blood-alcohol content to .05 percent from .08 percent for drivers with previous alcohol convictions within the past 15 years.
--Blocking increased punishment for providing alcohol to minors.
Bills the industry is advocating include:
--Implementing a tip wage of $7.25, which would be stationary regardless of increasing minimum wages.
--No added fines for employers if employees waive work and meal breaks.
--Repealing minimum wage increases.
This is the first convention where both the OLA and ORA combined events. The once-separate-but-cooperative organizations joined their management teams this year, while keeping separate boards of directors and CEOs.
The groups are part of a successful business collaboration because Oregon's tourism industry is one of the most powerful sectors in the state's economy.
The total economic impact of travel in Oregon brings $6.9 billion a year, which includes money spent by people traveling to Oregon from in state, out of state and out of the country, said Todd Davidson, Travel Oregon CEO. Eighty-eight thousand people are employed in the Oregon tourism industry.
In Central Oregon, travelers spent $463.4 million in 2003, according to the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
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