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Heavy Lifting: Hotel Housekeepers Reprise Farm Workers' Struggle for Safer Working Conditions

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Some hotel guests may be getting a better night sleep these days, but at the expense of the housekeepers who clean their rooms. In what has been called an "amenities arms race," many hotels now use luxury mattresses that weigh more than 100 pounds. Multiply those 100 pounds by the 16 to 25 beds the typical housekeeper must make up daily. Add to that the extra pillows to be fluffed, thick duvets and decorative bed skirts to be changed, without any reduction in the number of rooms each worker is required to clean. It's not hard to see how this workload can lead to debilitating, often permanent, back, arm and shoulder, and rotator cuff, injuries.

A series of studies have found that hotel housekeeping has become a dangerous occupation, leading to debilitating, often permanent, lower back, arm and shoulder injuries. The University of Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health program found in 2002 that 75% of hotel workers survey reported workplace injuries including sciatica, rotator cuff injuries and other serious back injuries A report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that hotel workers have higher injury rates than all other service workers. Among hotel workers, housekeepers have the highest injury rates of all.

Research by ergonomics experts at Ohio State University concluded that housekeepers had a higher risk of back injury than autoworkers who assemble car doors.

The injuries are preventable. A proposal by State Senator Kevin deLeon (D-Los Angeles) to improve working conditions for hotel housekeepers has already passed the California Senate Labor Committee. The Bill, SB 432, would require hotels to use fitted sheets on beds instead of flat sheets where mattresses have to be lifted. Hotel owners would also have to provide long-handled mops and dusters so housekeepers won't have to clean bathrooms on their hands and knees as they do now.

SB 432 is facing stiff opposition by the hotel and tourism industry. They say it will increase costs and stifle industry growth.

They told the Senate Committee that if SB 432 passes, California hotels will have to spend an additional $15 million to purchase fitted sheets. Since hotels generally replace their sheets annually, isn't this the price of normal operations -- especially as the new law would be phased in. Even if these figures are true, it's a drop in the bucket for the $47 billion lodging industry, a mere 0.03 percent of industry revenue. Is this too much to spend to save years of debilitating back pain and injury for thousands of California hotel workers?

Industry spokespersons say that hotels are already taking good care of employee health and safety and so there's no need for a law. Of course, they also claim the bill is a "job killer" -- the favorite label business lobbyists use to frighten politicians and the public from supporting laws that would create standards to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

Haven't we heard these desperate warnings before?

Today, hotel housekeepers are asking their employers to let them use long-handled mops to prevent back injury. Forty years ago, farm workers in California's fields made the same request. Back then, they were forced to stoop over for eight to twelve hours per day because the growers made them use short-handled hoes to tend lettuce, sugar beets, and other crops. After only a few years in these factories in the fields, farm workers suffered from chronic and debilitating back injuries. The emergence of the United Farm Workers union gave new voice and visibility to their plight.

In 1972, the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance petitioned the Industrial Safety Board of the state Division of Industrial Safety (since replaced by the Cal-OSHA standards board within the Department of Occupational Safety and Health) to prohibit the use of "el cortito," as the short hoe was known in the fields. The CRLA argued that farm workers should be allowed to use a four-foot long-handled hoe to reduce back injuries. Like hotel owners today, growers and agricultural industry lobbyists in the early 1970s predicted economic disaster for California agribusiness if the ban on the short-handled hoe was adopted.

Lettuce growers were among the loudest opponents. Hector de la Vega, a lettuce grower from Calexico testified at May 1973 state Industrial Safety Board (ISB) hearing that California would "absolutely do away with the industry if the short-handled hoe was outlawed." Another lettuce grower, Tom Merrill from Salinas, testified to the ISB in March 1975 that reduced production from the use of the shorter hoe would lead to a "total loss of food crops of monumental proportions". He claimed that the California agriculture industry would be "put at serious disadvantage."

Attorneys for the Salinas-based Bud Antle Corporation, the largest lettuce grower in the world, argued that banning the short-handled hoe would be disastrous for the industry and consequently the consumer because it would lead to fewer crops and higher prices.

In 1975, the ISB rejected a ban on "el cortito," but the CRLA appealed the decision. The California Supreme Court issued a ruling rejecting the arguments of the agribusiness lobby. Soon after Jerry Brown become governor (for the first time), the state Division of Industrial Safety issued an administrative order that banned the short-handled hoe.

Looking back, it turned out the growers predictions of shortages, soaring prices and industry decline were wrong. Very wrong.

Today, California's agriculture is a $30 billion industry -- the world's fifth largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities. Lettuce production and sales, in particular, is booming. Lettuce production and revenues have steadily increased since 1975 when the hoe was banned. As of 2010, more than three quarters of all U.S. grown lettuce is produced in California. Arizona, that also banned the short-handled hoe in 1975, grows most of the rest of domestic lettuce. Instead of the job loss the growers predicted, the number of agricultural workers in California has been steadily increasing since the ban.

And perhaps most importantly of all, back injuries among farm workers decreased by 34% after the ban according to a study by California Rural Legal Assistance.

Even growers admitted they were wrong. Robert Antle, President of Bud Antle Inc., a major opponent of the ban, told the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1975, " We fought this thing and worried about it and not it turns out not to be a problem."

Today, the hotel industry is making the same predictions of economic hardship and damage if housekeepers get the same protections that farm workers got 35 years ago when California acted to create safe workplaces in our most productive industries.

The agriculture industry was wrong forty years ago. California continues to be America's breadbasket while farm workers suffer fewer occupational injuries. The hotels are wrong today. Tourism will continue to be a growth industry in California and its success shouldn't depend on hotel housekeepers that have to get on their knees to clean $400 a night rooms. The California Assembly should act to make sure that hotel workers suffer fewer injuries also by passing SB 432. And Governor Brown should sign it.

Donald Cohen is the director of the Cry Wolf Project, a nonprofit research network that identifies and exposes misleading rhetoric about the economy, regulation and government. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Times.