Housekeepers struggle as US hotels ditch daily room cleaning

Honolulu, My 26th (U.S.): After guests walked out of a corner room at the Hilton Hawaii Village Resort on Waikiki Beach, housekeeper Luz Espigo collected enough trash, some scattered under the beds, to stuff seven large trash bags.

She stripped the beds of linens, dusted off the furniture and removed layers of dirt on the toilet and bathtub. She even got down on her hands and knees to pick up scraps of paper from the carpet that a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner failed to swallow, the Associated Press reports.

Like many other hotels across the United States, the Hilton Hawaiian Village has ditched daily housekeeping, making what was already one of the toughest jobs in the hospitality industry all the more difficult.

Industry insiders say the move away from daily cleaning, which has gained traction during the pandemic, is driven by customer preferences. But others say it is more about profit and has allowed hotels to cut the number of housekeepers at a time when many immigrant women who hold these jobs are still struggling with job losses during the coronavirus lockdown.

Many housekeepers who are still working say their hours have been cut and they are required to do more work in that time.

“It’s a big change for us,” said Espigo, a 60-year-old from the Philippines who has cleaned rooms at the world’s largest Hilton for 18 years, minus about a year she was laid off during the pandemic. “We are too busy at work right now. We can’t finish cleaning our rooms.”

Before the pandemic, there were 670 domestic workers employed at the Espejo resort. After more than two years, 150 of them have not been hired again or are on call, spending all day from 5:30 am to 10 am waiting for a phone call saying there is work for them. The never-set back or on-call number was 300 just a few weeks ago.

Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel workers, said: “It’s all about getting more money in the owners pocket by putting a greater workload on frontline workers and eliminating jobs.”

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While some hotels have begun to experiment with less frequent cleaning in the name of sustainability, it has become more prevalent early in the pandemic, when social distancing and other safety protocols are promoted, many hotels have switched to offering housekeeping only if a guest requests, and sometimes only after staying for a number of certain days. Guests were instructed to leave trash outside their doors and call the front desk for clean towels.

But even as safety restrictions fade and demand increases as the country enters the peak travel season, many hotels are maintaining their new cleaning policies.

A Hilton Hawaiian Village spokesperson said that no Hilton representative was available for an interview about these policies at any of the Hilton properties. Representatives of several major hotel chains, including Marriott and Caesars Entertainment, either declined interviews or did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment.

Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a trade group whose membership includes hotel brands, owners and management companies, said guest demands — not hotel profits — have guided decisions about pandemic housekeeper services.

“A lot of guests, to this day, don’t want people to come into their rooms during their stay,” he said. “Forcing a guest to do something they don’t want is the antithesis of what it means to work in the hospitality industry.”

The pandemic has changed the level of desire of most hotel guests for daily cleaning, he said, adding that it is not yet clear if this will lead to a permanent shift.

Rogers said housekeeping policies vary based on the type of hotel, with luxury hotels tending to provide daily housekeeping unless guests opt out.

Ben McLeod, of Bend, Oregon, and his family did not ask for housekeeping during a four-night stay at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii in March.

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He said, “My wife and I never really understood why there was a daily cleaning service…when that’s not the case at home and that’s a waste.”

He said he expects his children to put themselves in order.

“I’m type A,” he said, “so I get out of bed and make my bed, so I don’t need someone else to make my bed.”

Hotel union workers are trying to get the message across that refusing daily room cleaning is hurting housekeepers and threatening jobs.

Martha Bonilla, who spent 10 years working at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino in New Jersey, said she wants guests to order daily cleaning, noting that it makes her job less difficult. Although hotels in New Jersey are required by law to provide daily cleaning services, some guests still refuse them.

“When I come home from work now, the only thing I want to do is go to bed,” said Bonilla, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and a single mother of a 6-year-old daughter. “I am physically exhausted.”

Housekeepers say it’s not just about partying like those who threw Hawaiian scraps leaving behind filthy rooms. Even with regular use, it becomes very difficult to restore the sparkling, pristine rooms that guests expect upon check-in.

Elvia Angulo, a housekeeper in the Auckland Marriott City Center for 17 years, is the main breadwinner for her family.

In the first year of the epidemic, she worked a day or two a month. She got back 40 hours a week, but with no daily cleaning of the rooms, the number of people working per shift was halved, from 25 to 12.

“Thank God I have seniority here, so now I have five days again, and my salary is the same,” said Angulo, 54, who is from Mexico. “But now the work is really harder. If you haven’t cleaned a room for five days, you have five days of scum in the bathrooms. It’s scum upon scum.”

Many housekeepers still do not get enough hours to qualify for benefits.

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Sonia Guevara, who worked at the Seattle Hilton for seven years, used to really enjoy the benefits in her job. But since returning to work after being laid off for 18 months, she has not qualified for health insurance.

“At first I was thinking about getting a new job, but I feel like I want to wait,” she said. “I want to see if my hotel hours change.”

She said there are quite a few other work options with adequate hours to have two children at school.

And now politicians are looking into the issue, including Hawaii Rep. Sonny Janadin, who represents Kalihi, a neighborhood in Honolulu where many hotel workers live.

“Almost every time I talk to people at their door, I meet someone who works in a hotel and then we talk about how they are tired and what’s going on and working conditions,” he said. “You have a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants who are left kind of loud and dry because of these non-daily room-cleaning requirements.”

Janadin is among lawmakers who have introduced a resolution requiring Hawaii hotels to “immediately rehire or recall employees who have been laid off or furloughed” due to the pandemic.

If that wasn’t enough, Janadin said he would be open to more aggressive measures like those taken by some other places.

The Washington, D.C. City Council in April passed an emergency law requiring hotels in the area to serve room service daily unless guests opt out.

Amal Helig, an immigrant from Morocco, hopes the rules will mean more hours at the Washington Hilton, where she has worked for 22 years. She needs them so that her husband can get health insurance.

“I wish he had this month because I worked last month,” she said.

At 57, she doesn’t want to find a new job. “I’m not young, you know,” she said. “I have to stay.”

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