by Celeste Monforton
Who was the most compelling speaker at last week’s 134th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association? It wasn’t a scholarly epidemiologist warning about pandemic flu, or an emeritus professor presenting research on health disparities. No, the superstar speaker was a petite grandmother, wearing a red “Hotel Workers Rising!” t-shirt.
Isabella (not her real name) has worked as a hotel housekeeper for more than 30 years. Through her short talk (thankfully, sans PowerPoint) before a gathering of APHA attendees, Isabella brought us face-to-face with occupational health. She talked about changing layers of linens on luxury beds that stand 4 feet off the ground with mattresses weighing more than 100 lbs. She described the struggle (literally) of trying to force the deluxe overstuffed pillows into standard size pillow cases, and the rubbing and polishing required to remove water stains from granite counter tops and shower stalls. “We love our guests and want their rooms to be perfect,” she said, but she also had another message for us: the workload is wearing them out.
Today, hotel housekeepers are expected to clean 14-16 rooms per day, spending no more than 30 minutes on each one. What today’s hotel guests may not realize is that the 14-room standard hasn’t changed for decades. In 1979, when I was a maid (the job title at the time) at a Red Roof Inn in Farmington, Michigan, I was assigned 14 rooms to clean over a 7 ½ hour shift—about 30 minutes per room. But unlike today, we did not have coffee pots or mini-bars in our rooms, the bathroom countertops were off-white laminate, the bedspreads were thin polyester, and the pillows just a step above hospital grade. In 1979, I could barely keep up with the 30-minute per room pace. I can only imagine the physical toll and psychological strain of trying to clean 14 hotel rooms with their luxury accoutrements. Today, even “budget” hotels have upgraded their rooms with sofas, computer desks, microwave ovens, and marble-tiled bathrooms. And the housekeeper has to clean all of it. One hotel chain specifically advertises its “signature innovation”: the Heavenly Bed®, which has
“a custom designed pillow-top mattress set, a cozy down blanket, three crisp sheets ranging in thread count from 180 to 250, a comforter, duvet and five of the best pillows.”
In a few US and Canadian cities, groups of hotel workers are banding together to raise the issue of workload to hotel management and the public. And, there’s a growing body of data to help support their case for workplace safety improvements, including greater control over their workload and pace. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that hotel workers have higher rates of injuries, especially musculoskeletal disorders, compared to those in other service industries. At least one study suggests why these reported rates understate the problem, especially for hotel room cleaners. And, if you need inspiration for public health participatory action research, read the article by Pam Tau Lee (Labor and Occupational Health Program at University of California Berkeley) and colleagues about their successful research endeavor with hotel housekeepers working in Las Vegas. (In: Community Based Participatory Research for Health, Minkler and Wallerstein, eds., 2003)
Look for a future post entitled “Hotel Workers Rising! Part 2” for more on Isabella and other hotel housekeepers.