Wednesday, May 03, 2006

UNITE HERE Issues Report On Hotel Worker Hazards

In the continuing battle to organize hotel workers and improve their working conditions, UNITE-HERE has released a new study titled, "Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain"
Findings show that behind the luxury and comfort that housekeepers provide for hotel guests is a pattern of persistent pain and injury.

The report utilizes the first comprehensive analysis of employer records of worker injuries, including records of the major five hotel companies. The analysis covers seven years (1999-2005) and 87 hotel properties with approximately 40,000 hotel employees. The report finds that not only are housekeepers injured more frequently than other hotel and service workers, but this problem is only getting worse as hotel companies implement room changes including heavier beds and linens and room amenities like coffee makers and treadmills.
We already described a couple of weeks ago how the new "heavenly beds" create a hell of a mountain of pillows, heavy bedspreads, duvet covers and gigantic mattresses while hotel workers still expected to clean the same quota of rooms.
One of the contributing factors to pain and high injury rates is the standard way hotel management organizes housekeeping work. Based on a “room quota” system, housekeepers are required to clean a certain number of rooms each day. The greater the room quota, the faster she must work. If a hotel housekeeper has a 16-room quota, she must clean each room in less than 30 minutes to allow time to stock her cart and travel between floors. Housekeepers routinely report that they must race through their tasks in order to complete them on time. When rushing to clean a slippery tub or lift a heavy mattress, workers are more likely to get hurt.

Further, hotel housekeepers report that clean linen and towels are commonly understocked and well-functioning vacuums are few and far between, intensifing this time pressure. Any obstacles such as these supply shortages disrupt the pace of work and consume valuable minutes.

In recent years, the workload that hotel companies demand housekeepers perform has increased significantly. Chronic understaffing, coupled with the addition of time-consuming amenities—luxury items like heavy mattresses, fragile coffeepots and in-room exercise equipment—have placed housekeepers at greater risk of injury. In order to complete their room quotas, housekeepers are increasingly forced to skip meals and other breaks—rests necessary to prevent injury. Today, housekeepers’ bodies are at the breaking point.
The consequences for the health of these workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, is devastating:
Hotel workers are 48% more likely to be injured on the job than the typical worker in the service sector. Hotel workers also have higher rates of serious, disabling injuries—those that require days away from work or reassignment to light duty. These disabling injuries occur to hotel workers at a rate 51% higher than for service sector workers in general
The response of the hotel industry to the report, as reported by Catherine Comp in the New Standard, was almost amusing (in a tragic sort of way.)
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 management’s attention," McInerney said. "Don’t say that there’s a report out there that maids are hurting themselves because it’s harder to clean the room because they’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 they’re not working and then we have to hire replacements and train them."
UNITE HERE's health and safety director, Eric Frumin, notes that although there are ways to make the work safer, the hotels have generally refused to listen to workers' ideas. In some cases, however, organized hotel workers have managed to make some progress:
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 housekeepers’ pain have been hard to come by.

"We’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."
The UNITE HERE report has gotten quite a bit of favorable press attention:

Toronto Globe and Mail
This year, with no fewer than 400 hotel contracts up for renegotiation across North America, their union, UNITE HERE, has launched a hard-nosed bargaining campaign. The union, a 450,000-member giant created in 2004 with the merger of needle trades and hotel unions, aims to persuade the industry to provide its employees not with just higher wages but also with improved working conditions. Specifically, the union is looking for a reduction in the number of rooms an attendant must make up per shift and a guarantee that everyone gets breaks, to stop the practice of "working off the clock."
USA Today:
Hyatt Regency Chicago housekeeper Francine Jones said at a UNITE HERE news teleconference Tuesday that she has worked there 15 years and that a room now takes 15 minutes longer to clean, because of heavier, elaborate bedding and more amenities. The job "takes a whole lot out of a person's body. A whole lot," she said.

Occupational-medicine physician Peter Orris, who helped analyze study findings and is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, says that in recent years in his work at Cook County General Hospital, he has started seeing more housekeepers "complaining of problems" associated with heavy lifting.

"We were not paying much attention (previously)," he says, calling hotel housekeepers "invisible workers" because they toil mostly unobserved and in obscurity.

"This is among the highest-stress jobs (on the body) in the service and production industries," he says. "This is not just a union-generated thing, this is a real problem. And it looks like it's getting worse."
San Francisco Chronicle:
Joseph McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said the union's real agenda is increasing its ranks. He said labor negotiators will use the report to press for easier ways to sign up members, adding that Unite Here should have brought its health and safety concerns to management rather than turning the matter into "a political football.''

In San Francisco, talks are expected to resume in the next few months -- nearly two years after the expiration of the last contract covering 4,000 union workers at 14 major hotels. Hotel executives say there could be labor unrest in major cities across the country, including San Francisco, as Unite Here emphasizes attracting new members.

The union has moved the issue of housekeeper health and safety to the top of its negotiating agenda and may use it to influence bargaining on other topics.

Meanwhile, if you're planning on being in Chicago for Mothers Day, May 11, take Mom out to brunch and then head down to Thompson Center plaza to help hotel workers keep their two short daily breaks that the hotel industry is trying to take away from them. Children of these hotel workers will be there to say, "I love my mommy. Give her a break!"