JOBS BUT NO WORKERS - Put out of a job when COVID-19 practically shut down the hotel industry in 2020, Ruth Dominguez couldn’t wait to get back to work.
Her employer, the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Los Angeles, finally made it happen in late August — perfect timing, Dominguez thought, because her federal pandemic unemployment assistance was about to expire.
But when Dominguez got back to the DoubleTree, something was amiss. That first week, the 19-year employee got her usual 40 hours; the next, it was 32. Her weekly totals continued to fluctuate, but usually didn’t reach full-time status.
The problem? Dominguez works in housekeeping. And that puts her and her room cleaning colleagues in the middle of an aggressive corporate power play in which the pandemic is used as cover to save money by shorting those workers’ hours or cutting shifts altogether.
It’s no secret. Top executives at Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and other chains have openly signaled their intention to permanently hike profits by making daily room cleaning an exception rather than the norm at all but their highest-end properties. Chris Nassetta, the CEO of Hilton, bragged on an earnings call in February that the company would squeeze most of its brands — Hilton has 18 of them, including DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton and Tru — by “creating more labor efficiencies, particularly in the areas of housekeeping, food and beverage and other areas.”
“So they’re going to — when we get out of the crisis, those businesses will be higher margin and require less labor than they did pre-COVID,” Nassetta told investors.
The labor union Unite Here estimates that hotel industry’s plan to end daily housekeeping could cost nearly 181,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in annual lost wages.
Daily room cleaning has long been a staple of the hotel industry, an expected level of service for paying guests. Under the new business model, though, those guests have to specifically opt in to receive daily cleaning — or any cleaning, for that matter. For longer stays, that means rooms could go uncleaned for days at a time, resulting in reduced shifts for housekeeping employees. And subsequently cleaning those rooms becomes a much longer, harder job, with more chemicals being used to disinfect the space.
Unite Here, which represents 300,000 hospitality workers in North America, estimates that the industry’s plan could cost nearly 181,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in annual lost wages. In Los Angeles, Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said only about half of the union’s members there have so far been called back to work.
“This was always strictly a cost-containment move,” Petersen said. “That’s what the hotel companies’ goal was throughout the pandemic: Make fewer workers do more work.”
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As the virus raged in 2020, the few people who were staying in hotels approved of safety measures like suspending daily cleaning, according to a survey conducted by a lobbyist for the industry. The survey, conducted in August of last year, is long out of date — but the grind to find more profit by the hotels’ corporate parents goes on.
“Most hotels are short-staffed and still offering guests opt-in room cleaning upon check-in,” says Michael Bellisario, a hotel industry analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. “Hotel owners, particularly from a cost perspective, are pushing for the opt-in model to become permanent.”
That approach winds up landing on the heads of people like Dominguez. Despite nearly two decades of employment at the DoubleTree, she could not get full hours upon returning to work. The Salvadoran native said she and her husband pay $3,000 a month rent to live in the Los Angeles area, and California’s eviction moratorium for renters expired last month.
“I’m worried,” Dominguez said through an interpreter. “We could lose our house. For me, getting the hours means being able to continue our life.”
“The rooms just get so dirty — so dirty. If we only clean when they check out, it takes so much longer. I’m using lots of extra chemicals, and I’m coming home exhausted.” ~ Patricia Martinez, hotel housekeeper
The bottom line for hotel conglomerates is profit, and particularly in regaining revenue lost during the pandemic. That recovery clearly is going to come at the expense of employees. At a presentation last November during the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, the Park Hotels & Resorts corporation presented a slide deck that touted the chain’s “permanent reduction of full-time, hotel-level staffing resulting in $70 million annual savings.” It also predicted increased productivity “from opt-in stay over cleaning” — hotel rooms, that is, that go unserviced for days on end.
“The rooms just get so dirty — so dirty,” says Patricia Martinez, a housekeeper with 28 years of employment at the DoubleTree in downtown L.A. “If we only clean when they check out, it takes so much longer. I’m using lots of extra chemicals, and I’m coming home exhausted.”
Martinez says that her seniority among the housekeeping staff allowed her to get full-time hours at the hotel. “Others are getting one day a week, two days,” she says. “I firmly believe that’s the reason they’re doing this — to cut hours and cut pay.”
That effort at reducing expenses doesn’t necessarily cut both ways. Housekeepers in Los Angeles, who earn somewhere between $16 an hour (nonunion workers) and $22 an hour (union), have seen hours cut and shifts eliminated — but the CEO of Hilton more than doubled his pay. Nassetta’s total compensation went from $21.4 million in 2019 to $55.9 million in 2020 despite industry downturn and mass layoffs, according to Hilton’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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So is the opt-in model the inevitable wave of the future in hotels? Will tens of thousands of workers be put out of their jobs so their corporate parents can further fatten their profit margins?
At the highest levels of the industry, that is the plan. But for the workers at any given hotel, it’s not necessarily a settled matter.
Most major hotel companies, including Hilton, franchise their properties, usually to ownership or management groups. In the case of the DoubleTree in Los Angeles, an all day picket by Unite Here 11 workers in September called local media attention to the room cleaning issue, and the owners of that property backed down, agreeing to resume everyday cleaning at the end of the month.
“It’s one hotel,” Petersen says. “But we now have broken through and showed that this is really just a random standard, which we already knew because the corporations are maintaining daily cleaning at their luxury brands. We’ll be moving (the informational picket) to other hotels in Los Angeles.”
It’s the right approach, says Dominguez, who now expects to resume full-time hours. “We know that our guests have come to expect that their rooms be cleaned every day — and they should be,” she says. “Guests can take control by insisting that their rooms be cleaned. They’ll be saving jobs.”
(Mark Kreidler is a California-based writer and broadcaster, and the author of three books, including Four Days to Glory. This story was published in Capital and Main.)