May 3, 2006 – After fifteen years of working at one of Chicagoâ€™s biggest hotels, Hyatt Regency housekeeper Francine Jones has watched the rooms become much more extravagant. Mattresses and linens are heavier, pillows and amenities have multiplied, and the time and energy needed to clean each room has increased.
"The different changes of the set-up of the rooms have caused a major impact on ladiesâ€™ bodies from their neck to their back to their shoulders to their wrist," Jones said. "Theyâ€™re even having surgery now."
Labor advocates and occupational safety experts say Jones and her co-workers arenâ€™t alone. As upper-scale hotels across the country compete to offer the most luxurious nightâ€™s rest for their customers, housekeepers are expected to complete more strenuous tasks in the same amount of time. According to a report released last week by Unite Here, the main union representing hotel workers in the United States, housekeepers have the most dangerous jobs at hotels. They experience injuries at a rate of more than one in ten workers, nearly twice the rate of other hotel employees.
The study, "Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain," which examined data from 87 unionized Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels employing about 40,130 workers, also found that cleaning hotel rooms has become more hazardous over the past several years. Between 2002 and 2005, 30 percent of all hotel injuries were experienced by housekeepers, up from 26 percent between 1999 and 2001.
The heavy lifting and repetitive motion involved in these tasks can lead to back and shoulder injuries, bursitis of the knee, carpal tunnel syndrome and persistent pain in the hands, wrists and neck.
The Unite Here study is one of several looking at the issue of housekeeper job safety, and its findings are consistent with previous reports.
"Part of the reason why itâ€™s been a challenge for this issue to come to light is because our housekeepers donâ€™t complain enough about what theyâ€™re going through on the job," explained Unite Here spokesperson Amanda Cooper during a telephone press conference announcing the report. "It really takes timeâ€¦ to convince housekeepers to talk about it and that problems are real, because this is just something that theyâ€™ve been dealing with for so long that itâ€™s hard for them to recognize how serious it is."
The report lists seventeen typical hotel-housekeeping tasks for cleaning each room, such as stripping beds of all sheets, blankets and duvets; tucking bottom and top sheets and blankets four to eight times per bed; dusting vents, televisions and armoires; and vacuuming. There are another sixteen basic tasks for cleaning bathrooms.
Housekeepers working at the pricey Hilton hotel contend with the chainâ€™s king-sized "Serenity Bed" which includes 18 components: a 113-pound pillow-top mattress, a mattress topper or featherbed, three sheets, a down blanket, a down duvet insert and cover, two standard pillows and cases, two king-sized pillows and cases, and a decorative "bolster" pillow and case.
According to the report, a housekeeper who dresses fifteen of these Serenity Beds per day strips over 500 pounds of soiled linen and replaces it with 500 pounds of clean linen. The heavy lifting and repetitive motion involved in these tasks can lead to back and shoulder injuries, bursitis of the knee, carpal tunnel syndrome and persistent pain in the hands, wrists and neck.
In addition to Unite Hereâ€™s study, academics and ergonomic specialists have also started looking into workplace-safety issues surrounding hotel housekeeping. In a 2002 University of California at San Francisco study of 941 Las Vegas housekeepers, 83 percent reported taking pain medication for discomfort due to work and 62 percent reported work-related pain that forced them to visit a doctor.
Despite this increase in injuries documented by hotel management itself, as required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, Jones said housekeepers at the Hyatt in Chicago are still expected to clean the same number of rooms, often working through lunch breaks to finish.
The daily quota for Rosa Martinez, a housekeeper for 20 years at the LAX Hilton in Los Angeles, has increased, from fifteen to sixteen rooms per shift, often located on different floors.
"Iâ€™m not the only injured worker; itâ€™s many of us," Martinez told reporters through an interpreter. "Many of my coworkers are injured, but some people are afraid to speak up."
Jonathan Bennett, public-affairs director at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said the injuries acquired by housekeepers can be severe, but they are not dramatic enough to arouse much urgency or awareness.
"They are low-wage workers, and in many places they are not unionized and quite marginalized because they are not only low-wage workers, they are immigrant workers and many of them are undocumented immigrant workers," Bennett told The NewStandard. "So it really requires some group of people who is particularly interested in occupational safety and health issues to bring their plight to public attention."
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage of maids and housekeepers at all hotels is $8.32, which amounts to about $17,310 per year â€“ below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Some workers have succeeded in negotiating higher wages, including Hyatt housekeeper Jones, who under a recently approved contract is now earning $12.10 per hour.
Requests for interviews to the Hyatt and Hilton were not granted, but Joseph McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry membership group, told TNS he does not believe rooms are harder to clean, nor that housekeeper injuries are increasing.
"If there was some problem that we are creating a hazard for the maids, then it would behoove the union to bring it to managementâ€™s attention," McInerney said. "Donâ€™t say that thereâ€™s a report out there that maids are hurting themselves because itâ€™s harder to clean the room because theyâ€™ve added one or two more pillows."
McInerney said that many hotels have made adjustments, like providing special training and upgrading the carts for workers who clean the luxury suites, though he declined to name which hotels. He added that no hotel wants any of its employees to be injured, because "if they are hurt on the job, then theyâ€™re not working and then we have to hire replacements and train them."
Jones, who said her hotel has not offered any extra training, emphasized that they are not opposed to hotels upgrading rooms. "We want that, but we want them to understand that first we are women, first again we are single parents, some of us, and we are breadwinners of our family," Jones explained to reporters. "And if our bodies are broken down, none of the above can be completed. This is to be taken very seriously â€“ this is our bodies; this is our health; this is how we maintain."
The report states that physical exertion is compounded by a decrease in "hotel housemen" â€“ workers that help housekeepers stock clean linen, strip beds and move cots and cribs â€“
from approximately 18 per 100 housekeepers in 1999, to 12 per 100 in 2003.
"Hotel managers have reassigned housemenâ€™s work to housekeepers in addition to their normal duties," wrote the reportâ€™s authors.
Professor William Marras, director of the Institute for Ergonomics at Ohio State University, found that hotel workersâ€™ risk of injury is greater than many types of service industry and production jobs. Marras, who helped develop the Lumbar Motion Monitor â€“ a lightweight spine-shaped machine worn to measure physical exertion during work â€“ discovered that the average probability of lower-back disorder was 91 percent for housekeepers cleaning rooms with king-sized beds after the guest had checked out.
Dr. Peter Orris, head of occupational and public health at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, who conducted some of the academic research the Unite Here study was based on, said his team was stunned that more has not been done to improve workplace safety issues for housekeepers.
"Weâ€™ve heard from the auto industry and their efforts to reduce [workplace-safety] risks," said Orris. "Weâ€™ve heard from the healthcare industry â€“ in a very similar kind of risky situation with nurses â€“ that they have intervened. But we [have] not heard from the hotel industry, which surprised us and continues to surprise us today."
While workplace-safety experts say that housekeeping injuries can be prevented, Orris said ergonomic interventions have not been adequately studied or developed. He suggests simple solutions like counterbalancing the weight of the large "heavenly" beds to reduce the stress on housekeepersâ€™ backs, and introducing "ergonomically friendly extensions of peopleâ€™s arms" to help clean underneath crevices and behind shelves.
But according to Unite Here director of health and safety Eric Frumin, hotel management is resisting one of the most fundamental ways to identify solutions to workplace hazards.
"Itâ€™s a basic principal of good ergonomic practice for supervisors and managers to talk to workers about what ideas they have," said Frumin. "Identifying solutions with them is critical, and thatâ€™s unfortunately an obstacle weâ€™ve faced with this industry rather than an opportunity."
Indeed, hotels have resisted safety-related initiatives. Just to obtain the data necessary to conduct its study, Unite Here had to appeal to the federal Labor Relations Board to force employers to turn over statistics, despite hotelsâ€™ legal responsibility to share that information with unions.
Unite Hereâ€™s Cooper and Frumin said some housekeepers in San Francisco have been successful in reducing the number of rooms they clean during contract negotiations, while others in DC have succeeded in negotiating a contract that requires management to consult them before making changes to the rooms. But they add that even minor concessions to alleviate housekeepersâ€™ pain have been hard to come by.
"Weâ€™ve had to agree to continue discussions on a detailed basis about all these new amenities," said Fruman. "It was quite obvious that hotels were not prepared to accept the notion easily that these were hazards that needed a progressive program of prevention."