After performing a series of hotel inspections, the federal agency that oversees workplace safety has sent a rare letter to the Hyatt Corporation recommending that the hotelier take some basic precautions to protect its housekeepers from ergonomic injuries.
Hyatt was not issued any citations as part of the inspections, but the letter from the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) -- known as a post-inspection letter of findings -- is believed to be a first for the hotel industry. Dated April 25 and addressed to Hyatt board chairman Thomas Pritzker, the letter suggests that housekeepers at some of the Hyatt properties inspected weren't working with simple protections, like long-handled mops and dusters so they don't have to stoop over, or kneepads if they have to clean bathroom floors on their knees.
The Labor Department carried out the inspections after housekeepers in Illinois and Texas filed complaints with the agency claiming their working conditions exposed them to musculoskeletal disorders. In response, the agency observed housekeepers at work in certain Hyatt hotels. Although OSHA didn't issue citations, it was highly unlikely it ever would have, since the agency doesn't have firm ergonomic standards for the hotel industry.
The subtext to the OSHA letter is an ongoing labor battle between Chicago-based Hyatt and the hotel and service industry union UNITE HERE. The union has been trying to negotiate expired contracts with Hyatt in several cities, while also pressuring the company to improve what the union claims are dangerous working conditions for housekeepers and other hotel employees. The union has called for a boycott of Hyatt hotels and even launched an anti-Hyatt website, where it has posted stories from housekeepers who say their jobs have taken a toll on their bodies. The union has also criticized the company for outsourcing some of its housekeeper jobs to labor agencies that pay lower wages and don't offer benefits.
In a statement, Hyatt stressed that no citations were issued, and that many of the practices mentioned in the letter, including the use of long-handle tools, are already in place in its hotels. The company said the inspections and letter were the result of "rhetoric and gamesmanship" on the part of the union, which it said has "an ongoing campaign to impose membership on non-union Hyatt employees."
"It is unfortunate that [UNITE HERE] continues to distort Hyatt’s safety record for the purpose of creating misinformation about the work experience at Hyatt properties," the company said. "In yet another disingenuous tactic, union leadership has used a government agency, in this case, OSHA, to do their bidding."
Not surprisingly, the union applauded the letter from OSHA, saying it had long pushed for some of the recommendations listed in it.
"The idea that there are ergonomic problems related to housekeeping work -- that there are simple remedies to ease the pain of these jobs -- these are things that have been disputed by the hotel industry," said Annemarie Strassel, a UNITE HERE spokeswoman. The letter, she added, "lays out a pathway for the problems to be addressed."
Occupational health experts have recently documented some of the ergonomic dangers faced by housekeepers. Often performed by petite women, the job requires a lot of heavy lifting and pushing, as well as frequent stooping over and reaching to high places. It's industry standard for a housekeeper to clean 16 rooms in a day, budgeting roughly half an hour for each one, although many housekeepers claim their workload has been increasing in recent years, to sometimes more than 20 rooms in a day.
The OSHA letter to Hyatt noted that certain tools can help mitigate the dangers of sudden or long-term injuries. In addition to long-handled tools and knee pads, OSHA recommended that Hyatt provide housekeepers with motorized carts and lighter vacuums to make cleaning rooms easier; lightweight step stools so they can reach high areas; and fitted bedsheets so that they don't have to repeatedly lift king-size mattresses.
Although the type of bedsheets used may seem irrelevant to most hotel guests, many housekeepers say that switching to fitted sheets could help save them from back pain. The larger luxury mattresses found in hotels these days can weigh well over a hundred pounds, and non-fitted sheets require a housekeeper to lift the mattress up in order to slip the sheet under, perhaps 25 times in a day. At the behest of housekeepers, state legislators in California have even pushed a bill that would force the state's hotels to adopt fitted sheets or face a fine. The measure has been opposed by the state's hotel-and-travel lobby, which claims the requirement would cost them money and jobs.
Nenita Ibe, a Filipino immigrant who works at a hotel in Santa Clara, Calif., told HuffPost last year that many of the mattresses she has to lift are actually heavier than she is. "Every night I wake up from pain and cannot go back to sleep for two hours," Ibe, who weighs a slight 125 pounds, said. "Sometimes I sleep five hours, sometimes six."
Robert Harrison, a doctor of occupational medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, has noted that the repetitive motions of housekeeping work leads to higher back and shoulder injuries than in many manufacturing jobs. While testifying on the fitted-sheet bill in California, Harrison said that lifting some hotel beds exceeds what the Centers for Disease Control deems safe lifting.
This post has been updated with comments from Hyatt.