OpEd: Housekeeper Chimes In: Cleaning Rooms for a Living is No Easy Task

Have you ever stayed in a hotel? Chances are that you have, perhaps many times. Have you ever thought much about the woman who cleans your room every day?

I recently stopped working as a housekeeper at one of the well-known hotels in the county, and I can honestly say that it is the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’ve done some physically demanding jobs in my life — farming and landscaping, for example — but this one beats them all because of the pace and the monotony. Starting at 8:30 a.m. every day, we worked as hard as we could, as fast as we could, until 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. It was almost like running a race, and many of us were literally sweating from the exertion.

We would enter a room and strip the sheets off the bed and towels from the bathroom. We did this quickly, in room after room after room. Then we would backtrack, moving fast, making the bed, vacuuming and dusting. Everything had to be “just so” — nothing crooked, no tiny strings on the floor. We cleaned the tub, the sink, the floor and the toilet — your imagination can tell you some of what we found there. We had to remove every stray hair; we had to leave it as if no one has been there before you. The bathroom must have an inviting, “cared for” feeling, right down to putting a point on the toilet paper. We did this as quickly as possible, frantically sometimes. One day my mind strayed for two minutes as I switched on the radio, and it put me and my partner behind schedule. It is exhausting and grueling work. I came home at night with no energy. One of my co-workers fell asleep at 7 p.m. each night.

For all this hard and important work, housekeepers are paid minimum wage. I was paid $7.15 per hour, and I know this is the standard pay around town. I find it outrageous that housekeepers are paid such a low wage. We are dealing with some of people’s most intimate behaviors — sleeping and bathing — and we are pretty much invisible to the person who stays in the room. Because the pay is so low, many of my co-workers (often with families to take care of) have to work a second job.

You may say that the free market should govern wages, that no other constraints should apply to business. First of all, I ask you: Are you making minimum wage and trying to support a family as you say that? Secondly, shouldn’t all workers be treated with dignity? Shouldn’t someone who works very hard, and full time, be able to support his or her family instead of having a second or third job? Many low-wage workers have to turn to governmental programs like food stamps and Section 8 to make ends meet, all while allowing businesses to operate while being subsidized by the taxpayers.

I think often of Martin Luther King Jr. and the last campaign of his life. He was in Memphis supporting the garbage workers, black men who were considered the lowest of the low, the untouchables of our society. As they went out on strike, they walked with signs that said, “I Am a Man.” Hotel workers are similarly invisible. Let us not let this happen! All workers deserve dignity, respect and enough wages to feed their family.

If you stay in a hotel, please leave a tip, and leave it every day so that the worker who actually cleans the room that day is the one who receives it. Leave it in a place where it’s clear it’s meant to be a tip, like the pillow. But also ask management if they pay their workers a living wage. Tell them that you would be more likely to stay in a hotel that treats and pays its workers well. You as the consumer have a voice in this situation.

Eighty years ago, auto workers made very low wages. They came together, organized, unionized, and today auto workers start at no less than $20 per hour. A job that was previously dismissed and not thought to be worth much changed in the eyes of the public because the workers made that happen. I believe that hotel workers and other low-wage workers can and should do the same. And I call on the community to support these efforts.

Mary Loehr lives in Ithaca.