Housekeepers struggle as US hotels abandon daily housekeeping

HONOLULU — After guests checked out of a corner room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort on Waikiki Beach, housekeeper Luz Espejo collected enough trash, some scattered under beds, to stuff seven large trash bags.

She stripped the linens from the beds, wiped accumulated dust from the furniture, and scrubbed layers of dirt from the toilet and bathtub. She even got on her hands and knees to pick up confetti from the carpet that a high-powered vacuum couldn’t swallow.

Like many other hotels in the United States, the Hilton Hawaiian Village has eliminated daily housekeeping, making what is already one of the toughest jobs in hospitality even more tiring.

Sonia Guevara stands outside the Hilton Hotel where she works as a housekeeper in downtown Seattle last week. Many hotels across the United States have eliminated daily housekeeping, making what was already one of the toughest jobs in hospitality even more grueling. Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Industry insiders say the move away from daily cleaning, which has gained prominence during the pandemic, is being driven by customer preferences. But others say it has more to do with profit and has allowed hotels to reduce the number of housekeepers at a time when many of the mostly immigrant women who take on these jobs are still making up for lost work during the Coronavirus shutdown sway.

Many housekeepers who are still employed say their hours have been cut and they are being asked to do a lot more work during this time.

“It’s a big shift for us,” said Espejo, a 60-year-old Filipino native who has been cleaning rooms at the world’s largest Hilton for 18 years, minus about a year when she was laid off during the pandemic. “We are so busy at work now. We can’t finish cleaning our rooms.”

Before the pandemic, 670 housekeepers worked at Espejos Resort. More than two years later, 150 of them have not been reinstated or are on call and spend each day from 5:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. waiting for a call to tell them they have work to do. The number of employees who were not rented back or who were on call was 300 just a few weeks ago.

“The point here is to put more money in the owners’ pockets by increasing the burden on frontline workers and cutting jobs,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel workers.

While some hotels began experimenting with less frequent cleanings in the name of sustainability, this became far more common in the early days of the pandemic, when many hotels moved to only offer housekeeping upon a guest’s request and sometimes to encourage social distancing and other safety protocols only after a certain number of days. Guests were instructed to leave trash at their door and to call reception for clean towels.

But even as security restrictions ease and demand surges as the country’s peak tourist season begins, many hotels are sticking with their new cleaning policies.

A Hilton Hawaiian Village spokesman said no Hilton representative was available to interview about such policies at any Hilton property. Representatives from several major hotel chains, including Marriott and Caesars Entertainment, either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment.

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

“To this day, many guests don’t want anyone entering their room during their stay,” he said. “Forcing something on a guest that they don’t want is the opposite of what it means to work in the hospitality industry.”

The pandemic has changed the standard of most hotel guests, who want daily housekeeping, he said, adding it’s not yet clear if this will translate into a permanent shift.

Cleaning policies vary by type of hotel, Rogers said, with luxury hotels tending to offer daily housekeeping unless guests choose not to.

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

“My wife and I just never really understood why there should be daily housekeeping…when home doesn’t and it’s wasteful,” he said.

He said he expects his kids to clean up after themselves.

“I’m a Type-A, so I get up and make my bed, so I don’t need someone to make my bed,” he said.

Unionized hotel workers are trying to spread the message that refusing daily housekeeping hurts housekeepers and threatens jobs.

Martha Bonilla, who worked at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino in New Jersey for 10 years, said she wants guests to ask for daily housekeeping because it makes her job less difficult. Although New Jersey hotels are required by law to offer daily housekeeping, some guests still decline.

“Now when I come home from work, all I want to do is go to bed,” said Bonilla, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and is a single mother to a 6-year-old daughter. “I’m physically exhausted.”

Housekeepers say it’s not just partying guests like the confetti throwers in Hawaii that leave dirty rooms behind. Even with normal usage, it’s much harder to turn rooms that go uncleaned for days back into the shiny, spotless rooms that guests expect upon check-in.

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

In the first year of the pandemic, she worked a day or two a month. She’s regained her 40-hour week, but with rooms no longer cleaned daily, the number of staff working each shift has halved from 25 to 12.

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

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

Sonia Guevara, who has worked at a Seattle Hilton for the past seven years, used to really enjoy the perks of her job. But since returning to work after an 18-month layoff, she has not been eligible for health insurance.

“At first I thought about finding a new job, but I feel like I want to wait,” she said. “I want to see if my opening hours at the hotel change.”

She said there are few other job opportunities with hours conducive to having two children in school.

Now politicians are taking up the issue, including Hawaii State Assemblyman Sonny Ganaden, 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’re overworked and what’s happening and the working conditions,” he said. “There are a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants who are pretty let down by these non-daily housekeeping requirements.”

Ganaden is among lawmakers who introduced a resolution requiring hotels in Hawaii to “immediately reinstate or recall employees who have been fired or furloughed because of the pandemic.”

If that’s not enough, Ganaden said he’s open to more vigorous action, like some other places have taken.

The Washington, DC City Council passed an emergency law in April that requires hotels in the district to service rooms daily unless guests choose not to.

Amal Hligue, an immigrant from Morocco, is hoping the rules mean more hours at the Washington Hilton, where she’s worked for 22 years. She needs them so her husband can get health insurance.

“I hope he has 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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