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US hotel cleaners say their jobs are under assault

[NEW YORK] In the past four months, nearly every major hotel brand in the world has announced a cleaning programme highlighting new disinfecting and sterilising procedures. Many companies are consulting with medical organisations; some are using robots; all say they are cleaning more than ever before. Their messaging is clear: Hotels are very clean.

But many of the housekeepers who scrub, dust, vacuum and sanitise hotels in the United States say that companies are using the procedures and guidelines instituted in the wake of the coronavirus as an opportunity to give cleaners more work while cutting their hours, wages, benefits and, in some cases, jobs.

At a time when both American travel and hotel occupancy are at historic lows, the hotel industry says its priority is keeping guests and employees safe while remaining open. The American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry trade group with members including hotel brands, owners and management companies, has set new cleaning guidelines in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a programme it calls Safe Stay. But housekeepers would like hotels to follow rules outlined by the World Health Organization.

A particular point of contention between housekeepers, the largest hospitality union in North America and the hotels is whether hotel rooms should be cleaned daily. Many hotels have shifted away from daily cleaning, saying they hope to prevent employees as well as guests from contracting or spreading the coronavirus. They also feel that by keeping housekeepers out of rooms during a stay, they can assure guests that there hasn't been a stranger in their room.

"The vast majority of our customers don't want us cleaning their room while they are staying with us," said Robert Kline, chief executive and co-founder of the Chartres Lodging Group, a private equity investment firm that focuses on lodging. "They want to know the room is clean when they enter, but once they occupy that room, they are saying, 'Don't come in'." Housekeepers say cleaning rooms after someone checks out poses more of a risk to them and is more physically taxing than cleaning daily.

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"What we believe is that daily room cleaning is our arsenal to help fight the spread of Covid," said Nia Winston, general vice-president of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers' union that represents more than 300,000 hospitality workers. "Daily room cleaning is required in China and Hong Kong and other places that have successfully contained the virus." Ms Winston, who is also president of Unite Here Local 24, the union's affiliate for Michigan and Ohio, said that the WHO's guidelines call for the suspension of programmes that allow guests to forego housekeeping services.

Almost half of the 16.9 million jobs in the US leisure and hospitality sector were lost in March and April. More than a quarter of workers in that sector remain unemployed. Fewer housekeepers are working, and they say they have to clean rooms where several days worth of trash, dust and germs have accumulated in the same amount of time allotted for daily cleaning. And since the rooms aren't cleaned as often, they are getting fewer days of work each week, resulting in lower wages.

SAFETY, BUT FOR WHOM?

In June, three months after being furloughed from her job as a housekeeper at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Pauline Petit-Homme was called back to work. She learned that instead of cleaning rooms every day, she would be cleaning them when guests checked out.

Ms Petit-Homme, who has worked at the hotel for 22 years, said she is one of a few housekeepers back at work and her managers said there aren't enough guests to bring in more. She was told the cleaning of rooms at checkout is meant to keep her and guests safe. But she believes that the hotel is busy enough that more housekeepers should be brought back.

"They are still busy," Ms Petit-Homme said. "They don't have no respect for the housekeeping. We work very hard in the housekeeping, and now we do more work in the same time, and it's hard." Josh Herman, vice-president of marketing and public relations at the Fontainebleau, said the hotel's focus is on returning to former occupancy levels, enabling it to reemploy as many of its workers as possible. He added that since reopening, the hotel has been following AHLA guidance and has received positive feedback from guests.

"While the enhanced cleaning protocols are more costly to execute, both in supplies and labour, the health and safety of our guests and team members are always our highest priority," he said. "We continue to work closely with our housekeeping team in adjusting schedules to accommodate for these new requirements."

Ms Petit-Homme and others said that the current fight is just the latest skirmish in a more-than-decadelong battle between hotels and employees. Companies, housekeepers say, want to save money, so they've created programmes that discourage guests from requesting housekeeping but have framed them as environmental initiatives and offered guests rewards points for skipping cleanings. The pandemic, as they see it, has given these companies an opportunity to trim cleaning even more - and cut their costs.

Hotel owners and investors say they simply cannot afford to have all their housekeepers back at work full time and measures like checkout-only cleaning are meant to keep everyone safe. They say it's also what guests want.

Frank Lavey, senior vice-president of global operations at Hyatt, said in an email that guests "are returning to Hyatt hotels with new expectations around cleanliness, which includes limiting potential contact points, especially within the guest room."

THE FEAR OF LOSING GOOD JOBS

What industry officials see as an attempt to keep employees safe, Unite Here and its members see as an attack on working-class people of color, in particular, who could be left without good quality jobs.

Although data on the demographics of housekeepers in the hotel industry is scarce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly 71 per cent of maids and housekeepers in the US in 2019 were people of colour. Many are first-generation immigrants, primarily from the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and China, according to Unite Here.

At many hotels, housekeeping jobs pay up to US$27 per hour, with health care benefits that cover workers' families. Many, like Nely Reinante, a housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel on Waikiki Beach, live in fear of losing their jobs and not being able to replace them.

Erica Hayes was a housekeeper at the DoubleTree by Hilton Chicago Magnificent Mile until she was furloughed in February. She has been living off unemployment benefits but worries that those will end soon and she still won't be back at work. Her husband was killed this summer, and she has to support her four teenage daughters alone. The fear of not being able to do so anymore has been all-consuming.

These employment anxieties are exacerbated by the fact that housekeepers say they don't have enough personal protective equipment. All the housekeepers interviewed said they could use more masks and gloves. Lisa Brown, who was furloughed from her job at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center in March, said new harsher chemicals splash on her face and skin, so uniforms that cover more of her arms would also be useful.

Ofelia Cardenas, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country, said that if housekeepers don't specifically ask for new masks, they can end up wearing the same ones for a week, despite coming into contact with chemicals and the employees' sweat. The hotel, she said, should make access to masks and gloves easier. She said she often doesn't have enough gloves and will wear just one glove, on her right hand, which she uses to scrub things because she doesn't want to run out.

"It's scary because you are worried about your health," Ms Cardenas said in Spanish through a translator. "I see they don't care about the worker. They care about their bottom line. If they cared, they'd have enough gloves, they'd come see how we are doing."

Mr Lavey, of Hyatt, said that staff members are given a mask at the beginning of their shifts and housekeepers are given their own box of gloves at the start of each shift, and when the supplies run low, a replacement box of gloves is provided.

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