From the plump cloud of down bedding to the sparkling bathroom, a luxury hotel wraps guests in lush serenity, bearing no hint of the work that went into scrubbing the toilet and flipping the mattress. But when the room is unoccupied, the workers toiling quietly inside are stalked by constant threats of injury and abuse. Now hotel housekeepers are breaking the silence to demand fair working conditions.
As part of UNITE HERE!’s Housekeeper’s Global Week of Action campaign, the hospitality workers of Long Beach, California, rallied on Thursday to push the City Council to adopt a set of labor standards that would limit their workloads and strengthen protection from assault.
Stand with Women Against Abuse, a coalition of community and labor groups, says that offensive or predatory behavior at work is practically an occupational hazard for the mostly female hotel workforce. About eight in 10 hotel workers have encountered some form of verbal aggression or harassment at work, according to surveys. The proposed solution is providing staff with “panic button” devices, which allow workers to instantly summon emergency help. If this proposal is adopted, Long Beach would follow New York City, where most hotels introduced panic buttons in 2012, as part of an industry-wide labor contract.
The Long Beach proposal would require a security response within three minutes and guarantee workers “a right to be re-assigned to an area other than the area where the assault occurred.” As a deterrent, the sexual-assault protections would be publicized with signs about the panic button posted around the hotel.
In addition to these protections against assault, the proposal also includes guidelines to prevent overwork. The policy would institute a tiered approach, limiting a regular eight-hour day’s workload to “4,000 square feet or 12 average-sized rooms.” Cleaning 4,000 to 5,000 square feet would then be compensated by time-and-a-half pay, and higher workloads would have double pay.
Housekeepers currently might be assigned up to 18 rooms a day, or the equivalent of 2.5 single-family homes, according to Stand with Women. Workloads appear to be intensifying, as the number of hotels in the city has grown from 37 in 2002 to 44 today, “while its workforce has decreased from 2,575 to 2,370.”
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In a recent testimonial published by the coalition, housekeeper Juana Melara described how degrading working conditions increased vulnerability to other abuses: “On a daily basis we lift hundred-pound mattresses and often don’t have time to use the restroom because we are constantly rushed to work faster. … Every day, I want to finish the job but I can’t because the quotas are so high.”And while they bustle from room to room, the threat of potential attack or harassment from leering strangers lurks behind every door. “Under that kind of pressure,” she added, “it’s hard to be alert and pay attention. But the minute you least expect it, you can be attacked.” Other workers recounted unwanted sexual aggression from strangers, guests masturbating or parading around unclothed in their presence—and in one instance, a worker’s sweater getting stained with semen.
Nereyda Soto, a Hyatt Hotel barista and UNITE HERE! member, says some coworkers have reported incidents of groping and other harassment, and management has failed to respond adequately, even though the staff are relatively well protected under their union contract. Meanwhile, workers in non-union hotels, she says, are “working off the clock, working through their breaks… and come in 30 minutes early every day to set up their cart just to be able to meet the quota, or else they’re scared they’re going to be fired [while] working for minimum wage.” If a worker is assaulted during her breakneck cleaning rounds, why risk reporting when the management might not even listen?
With the panic button, Soto says, “on a day-to-day basis…[if] somebody who wants to hurt them shows up, they could always have that security to push that button.” It would also make her feel more secure about her own aunt, also a hotel housekeeper. “It always scares me that somebody could hurt her, and nobody would hear her scream because she’s on the 17th floor.”
Tonia Reyes Uranga with Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community, says the city has a responsibility to oversee hotel labor conditions since its local economy—where most residents are people of color and about one in five live in poverty—depends on, and invests heavily in, the burgeoning tourism industries. Workers have achieved some gains as the industry has grown, such as a living-wage ordinance in 2012, but labor conditions remain unsustainable.
“The women that work in the hotels are not seen, and not heard…. They go up and down, and get their work done as quietly and quickly as possible,” Uranga says. “And so people don’t really want to think about them.” The ordinance aims to create a more proactive workplace safety culture, particularly because employers might further alienate victims by dismissing their complaints. While the enforcement mechanism has not yet been devised, she says, just codifying these worker protections would “at least make the women feel more secure on the job.”
The ordinance alone wouldn’t immediately raise industry standards, particularly for non-union hotels, but would provide a safeguard against the drive of the luxury hospitality sector toward ever greater excess: loftier rooms, thicker mattresses, longer hours, constant speed-up.
To resist these pressures, Soto says, more hotel workers must organize unions, which would not only empower staff to negotiate with management on labor conditions, but also protect them from retaliation for challenging workplace abuses. “I could see how at the other hotels, how scared these housekeepers are to speak up” for fear of losing their jobs, she adds. “That’s why we need a union. We need a union to protect our moms, our sisters, our aunts…. These companies want us to basically work for nothing.”
As the cost and scale of luxury hospitality rises, workers are pushed further out of sight, yet further exposed to exploitation and predation. You might leave extra cash for that invisible housekeeper when you check out, but what workers need more than a guest’s gratuity is an industry that puts a real premium on their safety.