At a major chain hotel in Orlando, where tourists are always stopping through to enjoy the town’s glitzy theme parks and resorts, many workers are just stopping through as well. They are distinguishable by their light-blue uniforms—different from the regular staff’s logoed shirts—by their Jamaican accents, and by the fact that come summer, when other staff might be looking forward to paid vacation, or maybe a raise, these “guestworkers” will be sent home, having exhausted their work visas.
One afternoon, as the workers ate lunch together in the small staff cafeteria, I visited with some union staffers doing routine member outreach and noticed an awkwardness hanging in the air. Though UNITE HERE represents staff housekeepers, organizers can only chat informally with the outside contractors. These workers are reluctant to discuss much about their working conditions. However, a young woman says she gets solid training with help from other “far more advanced” housekeepers and is “comfortable” working this way as a means of supporting her family. But the work is strictly temporary: six- to nine-month stints, arranged under a staffing company, through an agency that specializes in processing H-2B visas (a temporary migrant-labor program for various service industries) to fill hotel jobs during “peak seasons.”
Limited hiring of agency workers is allowed by the union contract. But these “guestworkers” earn $9.85 per hour, according to Labor Department records (with deductions for housing), and clean about 16 rooms a day, like the regular housekeepers. Their unionized coworkers earn on average $11.19 an hour under UNITE HERE’s collective bargaining agreement.
In one corner, the housekeeping shop steward, a gregarious middle-aged Haitian American, banters warmly with both union and agency workers, but remarks quietly that since the subcontracted workers are not unionized, the hotel “can use them like nothing.” UNITE HERE can’t advocate for them if there’s a conflict with management, as they do for regular staff. The steward understands why they come to work, but also why the hotel chooses to hire through an agency instead of adding regular staff: The hotel “could use some people here [in the United States], but they don’t.”
The lunchroom scene reflects a new status quo in the hospitality industry: Convoluted staffing arrangements such as guestworker visas are the product of the rise of outsourcing, subcontracting, and quasi-employment models that have sliced, diced, and confused the workforce as bosses grow increasingly distant from the people working under them.