A bill moving through California's Legislature would require hotels… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )
Reporting from Sacramento —
Business owners and others who have long complained that companies are overburdened by state regulations say a proposal now moving through the Legislature shows that lawmakers have lost all touch with reality: It would require that hotels use fitted sheets.
"We are now going to make it a crime in California not to use a fitted sheet? Really?" state Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) asked during a debate before the Senate passed the measure in June.
The bill, one of nearly 900 awaiting final action in the Legislature when it returns Monday from a monthlong recess, is intended to address back injuries sustained by hotel housekeepers. But it has revived a long-simmering debate over whether California has become a hyper-regulated "nanny state."
In 2007, the Legislature was subject to national ridicule when it considered a bill to outlaw spanking of young children. Embarrassed lawmakers eventually shelved that proposal, but businesses have decried the Legislature's subsequent ban on trans fats in restaurant cooking, requirement that calorie counts appear on menus, and prohibition on dairies docking cows' tails.
This year, businesses are crying foul over proposals to ban restaurants from cooking shark fin soup and using Styrofoam food containers — and the sheets bill. Its author, state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), said scores of housekeepers suffer back injuries each year lifting heavy mattresses to replace flat sheets, and the issue is a personal one for him.
"My mother was a housekeeper and worked herself to the bone," said De Leon, who said his measure would be the first law of its kind in the nation. It also would require special tools to enable maids to clean bathrooms without having to stoop or get down on their hands and knees.
"Housekeepers have the highest rate of lower-back injuries in the hotel industry, and these workers deserve much better," the senator said.
More than 7,400 housekeepers working in California hotels have filed workers' compensation claims for injuries they say they suffered last year, including 883 who said they hurt their backs, according to the state Industrial Relations Department.
Another proposal pending in the Legislature would require hospitals to provide patient-lifting equipment or teams of backup workers to help nurses avoid wrenching their backs when they lift or move patients.
The hospital and hotel bills are being pushed by employee unions representing nurses and housekeepers. They are opposed by industry groups that say they share the goal of protecting workers but object to blanket rules dictated from Sacramento.
The dispute is particularly intense this year as California struggles with a tough economy and high unemployment.
"Californians will be outraged when they learn that instead of focusing on the many real problems facing this state, lawmakers want to regulate bed sheets," said Lynn Mohrfeld, head of the California Hotel & Lodging Assn.
The hotel industry says that it would have to spend at least $30 million to replace sheets and buy appropriate laundry equipment, and that De Leon's measure, SB 432, would open the door for more employee lawsuits. In response, De Leon is planning changes to his bill that would give hotels the option of adopting other methods of protecting housekeepers from back injuries, such as purchasing equipment to reduce strain.
Just as hotels object to the potential expense of De Leon's bill, the hospital industry says it would incur steep costs if extra staff and equipment were required for medical facilities that already have worker-safety policies. The cost of providing a two-person lift team 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is about $375,000 per year, according to Jan Emerson-Shea, a vice president with the California Hospital Assn.
The group opposes the hospital measure, AB 1136 by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland). Emerson-Shea said the organization wants the bill changed to give each hospital more flexibility to determine whether a lift team or expensive equipment is needed.
A lift team might be warranted at a hospital for adults but be unnecessary at a facility specializing in newborns and small children, she said. "If you are moving a 2-pound infant, you don't need a lift team."
Stephanie Roberson, a lobbyist for the California Nurses Assn., said lift teams could be needed at pediatric facilities to move an obese child.
Swanson said it is costly for the country to lose nurses to injury. More than 9,700 nurses filed workers' compensation claims for injuries last year in California, including 2,182 who said they hurt their backs, according to the state Industrial Relations agency.
"Nurses are critical to our healthcare system, and 12% of them are forced to leave the profession each year because of the disabling injuries caused by lifting patients," he said, citing a report in the International Journal of Nursing Studies.
The objections of the hotel and hospital industries mean little to Nenita Ibe and Patricia Burress.
Both were injured doing their jobs, Ibe as a hotel housekeeper in Santa Clara and Burress as a nurse in Long Beach. Ibe was among a busload of housekeepers who came to the Capitol recently wearing their hotel uniforms and asking for help.
"Every night I wake up from the pain and can't go back to sleep for hours," the Filipino immigrant told a legislative committee, recounting how she badly injured both arms while lifting mattresses.
Burress' injury, which occurred while she tried to move a stroke patient at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, required emergency surgery and ended her nursing career.
"We are lifting patients constantly," she said in an interview. "If we would have had some sort of lift team, everything that happened to me would have been prevented."