Despite tourism boom, Hawaii housekeepers struggle as hotels ditch daily room cleaning
HONOLULU (AP) — After guests checked out of a corner room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort on Waikiki beach, housekeeper Luz Espejo collected enough trash, some strewn under beds, to stuff seven large garbage bags.
She stripped the linens from the beds, wiped built-up dust off furniture and scrubbed away layers of grime on the toilet and bathtub. She even got on her hands and knees to pick confetti from the carpet that a heavy-duty vacuum failed to swallow up.
Like many other hotels across the United States, the Hilton Hawaiian Village has done away with daily housekeeping service, making what was already one of the toughest jobs in the hospitality industry even more grueling.
Industry insiders say the move away from daily cleaning, which gained traction during the pandemic, is driven by customer preferences. But others say it has more to do with profit and has allowed hotels to cut the number of housekeepers at a time when many of the mostly immigrant women who take those jobs are still reeling from lost work during coronavirus shutdowns.
Many housekeepers still employed say their hours have been cut and they are being asked to do far more work in that time.
“It’s a big change for us,” said Espejo, a 60-year-old originally 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 so busy at work now. We cannot finish cleaning our rooms.”
Before the pandemic there were 670 housekeepers working at Espejo’s resort. More than two years later, 150 of them haven’t been hired back or are on-call status, spending each day from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. waiting for a phone call saying there’s work for them. The number not hired back or on call stood at 300 just a few weeks ago.
“This is all about more money in the owners’ pocket by putting a greater workload on the frontline workers and eliminating jobs,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel workers.
While some hotels started experimenting with less frequent cleaning in the name of sustainability, it became far more widespread early in the pandemic, when to promote social distancing and other safety protocols, many hotels switched to offering room cleaning only if a guest requested, and sometimes only after staying a certain number of days. Guests were instructed to leave trash outside their door and call the front desk for clean towels.
But even as safety restrictions fade and demand picks up as the country enters peak travel season, many hotels are keeping their new cleaning policies in place.
A spokesperson for the Hilton Hawaiian Village said no Hilton representative was available for an interview about such policies at any Hilton property. Representatives for several major hotel chains, including Marriott and Caesars Entertainment, either declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to Associated Press requests for comment.
Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group whose members include hotel brands, owners and management companies, said it was the demands of guests — not hotel profits — that guided decisions about pandemic housekeeper services.
“A lot of guests, to this day, don’t want people coming into their room during their stay,” he said. “To force something onto a guest that they don’t want is the antithesis of what it means to work in the hospitality industry.”
The pandemic changed the standard of most hotel guests wanting daily cleaning, he said, adding it’s not yet clear if that will result in a permanent shift.
Housekeeping policies vary based on the type of hotel, Rogers said, with luxury hotels tending to provide daily housekeeping unless guests opt out.
Ben McLeod, of Bend, Oregon, and his family didn’t 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 have never really understood why there would be daily housekeeping ... when that’s not the case at home and it’s wasteful,” he said.
He said he expects his kids to tidy up after themselves.
“I’m a Type-A, so I get out of bed and I make my bed, so I don’t need someone else to make my bed,” he said.
Unionized hotel workers are trying get the message out that turning down daily room cleaning is hurting housekeepers and threatening jobs.
Martha Bonilla, who has spent 10 years working at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino in New Jersey, said she wants guests to ask for daily cleaning, noting it makes her job less difficult. Even though hotels in New Jersey are required by law to offer daily cleaning, some guests still turn it down.
“When I come home from work now, the only thing I want to do is go to bed,” said Bonilla, originally from the Dominican Republic and a single mother of a 6-year-old daughter. “I am physically exhausted.”
It’s not just partying guests like the ones who threw confetti around in Hawaii that leave behind filthy rooms, housekeepers say. Even with typical use, rooms left uncleaned for days become much harder to restore to the gleaming, pristine rooms guests expect when they check in.
Elvia Angulo, a housekeeper at the Oakland Marriott City Center for 17 years, is the main breadwinner in her family.
For the first year of the pandemic, she worked a day or two a month. She has regained her 40 hours a week, but with rooms no longer cleaned daily the number of people working each shift has been cut in half, from 25 to 12.
“Thank God I have seniority here so I now have my five days again, and my salary is the same,” said Angulo, 54, who is from Mexico. “But the work really is now harder. If you don’t clean a room for five days you have five days of scum in the bathrooms. It’s scum over scum.”
Many housekeepers still aren’t getting enough hours to qualify for benefits.
Sonia Guevara, who has worked at a Seattle Hilton for seven years, used to really enjoy the benefits at her job. But since returning to work after being laid off for 18 months, she hasn’t qualified for health insurance.
“At first I was thinking to get a new job, but I feel like I want to wait,” she said. “I want to see if my hours change at the hotel.”
She said there are few other job options with hours conducive for having two children in school.
Now politicians are picking up on the issue, including Hawaii state Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who represents Kalihi, a Honolulu neighborhood where many hotel workers live.
“Almost every time I talk to people at their doors, I meet someone who works in a hotel and then we talk about how they are overworked and what is happening and working conditions,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of first- and second-generation immigrant folks that are kind of left high and dry by these non-daily room cleaning requirements.”
Ganaden is among the lawmakers who introduced a resolution requesting Hawaii hotels “immediately rehire or recall employees who were laid off or placed on leave” because of the pandemic.
If that’s not enough, Ganaden said he would be open to more forceful measures like some other places have taken.
Washington, D.C.’s city council in April passed emergency legislation requiring hotels in the district to service rooms daily unless guests opt-out.
Amal Hligue, an immigrant from Morocco, hopes the rules mean more hours at the Washington Hilton where she has 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 years old, 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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