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Housekeepers Say They Are Pressed for Time

Hotel employees complain a rising workload is exhausting them. Managers deny that workers are overburdened.

September 07, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The coffeepot must be cleaned. The ironing board has to be collapsed. And the iron -- well, that means another trip to the sink to dump out water.

Most onerous is the Heavenly Bed, an elaborately luxurious concoction of sheets, pillows and down blankets that is a trademark of Westin Hotels. The housekeepers have a joke: The Heavenly Bed can be hell to make.

At the Westin Century Plaza and other expensive hotels in Los Angeles, housekeepers say they're exhausted by heavy workloads, in part because of all the perks and pampering that guests now expect in a first-class room.

Whether cleaning a microwave oven or scrubbing an oversized whirlpool tub, the extra steps add up, say the workers, mainly immigrant women earning about $11 an hour. Some say they routinely skip breaks to finish their daily room quotas.

"They think we can do this in 40 minutes, but in reality it takes an hour," said Rosie Molina as she lathered up the mirrors and marble walls of a guest bathroom at the five-star St. Regis in Century City. Her quota is 10 rooms a day. "Most of the time," she said, "you're running."

The complaints of physical burnout -- a familiar theme in U.S. workplaces after years of downsizing and productivity gains -- are a central element of prickly contract negotiations between the hotel workers' union, Unite Here, and nine upscale properties, including the Hyatt Regency, Millennium Biltmore and Westin Century Plaza.

Local union leaders have said they won't sign a deal without protections that limit room quotas, similar to those won by room attendants in Las Vegas two years ago under threat of a strike. That position reflects a growing militancy among the housekeepers in Los Angeles, who dominate the union here and are among its lowest-paid members.

Their complaints include wage inequities (housekeepers in nearly every other major U.S. city earn more) and health insurance costs (hotels recently started charging $40 a month for family policies, which had always been free).

But workload is the top concern, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents about 4,800 hotel workers in the region.

"They are at the end of their ropes," Durazo said. "This is something that's been festering for years."

So far, the industry response to union demands has been an emphatic "No."

John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand, one of nine members of the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council, said the union proposal would raise labor costs at his hotel alone $1 million a year, to $15 million.

And he maintains there's no need for it.

"By 3:30 [the end of their shift], our housekeepers are done. They're chitchatting in the linen room, then they come down and punch out," he said. "That tells me we have not put an unfair burden on them." He said he regularly checked timecards to ensure that workers were not skipping meal breaks.

Stoddard and other hotel managers claim the workload issue was manufactured by the union to whip up members as they headed into tough negotiations in the spring.

"When you tell somebody, 'You work too hard,' people tend to believe that," said Tim Loughman, managing director of the St. Regis and the adjoining Century Plaza hotels, which employ 650 union workers.

Eight of the workers, observed and interviewed at random over a two-day period, said there was nothing artificial about the problem.

"The work is more and the support is less," said a 16-year housekeeper as she flung open the drapes of a $300-a-night room at the Century Plaza. "Look at this terrace," she said, sliding the glass door and ignoring the view of Century City from 15 stories up. "It's a pigsty."

Special crews once cleaned the balconies, said the worker, who asked that her name not be printed because she feared retaliation from managers. The crews were cut in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the travel industry went into a devastating tailspin. They were never hired back, she said, and now she does the best she can.

Ditto for water and wine glasses, now washed in the bathroom sink. "Before, they had people come in and vacuum under the beds," said the married mother of two, wearing Century Plaza's charcoal gray pantsuit. "Now we do it," she said. "They bought new vacuums so we could reach."

Plus, there's all the new stuff: The coffeepot, iron, hair dryer. The Heavenly Bed. With five pillows, three sheets, a blanket and a cotton-covered duvet, the arrangement trademarked by Century Plaza operator Westin is so elaborate, the company features a diagram of it on its website. "The bed takes the most time," said the worker, who grimaced as she wrestled with a duvet cover.

The Century Plaza quota is 15 rooms a day. That means an average of 30 minutes per room, plus lunch. By midmorning, the worker was already behind schedule. She consulted a scribbled list of room numbers, then braced herself and set her 300-pound cart rolling down the distinctively curved hallway of the hotel, an architectural landmark.

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