Opinion: Hotel housekeepers get off your knees and straighten your backs

It may seem odd for the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association (CAAA), whose members represent those injured while doing their jobs, to sponsor SB 432 (De Leon), to prevent injuries to hotel housekeepers. But no one knows better than we do how poorly some injured workers are treated by workers’ compensation insurance companies. We see repeated delays and denials in providing needed medical care and disability compensation to injured workers.  We know that preventing injuries is in everyone’s best interest, and that’s why our members are working with many labor unions to win fitted sheets and long-handled mops for hotel housekeepers.

We have been shocked at how determined California’s large hotel corporations are to prevent hotel housekeepers from improving their current unsafe working conditions. Hotel housekeepers are the most-often injured hotel employees. And they are injured more frequently than other service industry employees. Most of these injuries are due to lifting heavy mattresses to fold and tuck in flat sheets, and kneeling, stooping and climbing onto bathtubs to clean bathroom floors, tubs and showers.

In recent years, workplace injuries suffered by hotel housekeepers have risen dramatically due to the increasing use of so-called “luxury” items, such as thicker mattresses, decorative linens, and increased pillows. While we hotel guests benefit from these luxury items, the beds can weigh more than 100 pounds. Lifting these mattresses over and over to fold and tuck flat sheets hurts housekeepers. Housekeepers must also move heavy carts from room to room.

There are simple remedies for these injuries: a long-handled mop and fitted sheets would help prevent many of them.

The hotel industry claims they can’t afford to buy a fitted sheet for each bed. They even claim fitted sheets won’t prevent injuries. When Sen. Mark Leno asked the industry’s expert (flown in from Texas, no less) what kind of sheets she has on her beds at home, the expert said, of course she has fitted sheets. She went on to tell the senator that one can’t even buy a set of sheets for your home without a fitted bottom sheet. If we won’t put up in our homes with the folding and tucking, folding and tucking and folding and tucking over and over, then it’s clear the only reason hotels don’t have fitted sheets is that they can get away without doing so.

Why wouldn’t hotels provide housekeepers with floor mops? I have asked myself this many times since we began sponsoring SB 432. Growers used to force farmworkers to use a short-handled hoe, requiring them to bend and stoop to weed, until growers were required to provide a long-handled hoe. There was no loss of productivity, but there was a 34 percent decrease in back injuries after the short-handled hoe was outlawed. Hotel corporations hold great power over hotel housekeepers, and they are using it to impose unreasonable and unsafe working conditions. The injuries and resulting lost time from work, and workers’ compensation claims costs, likely cost the hotels more than the mops and fitted sheets would. But it’s just easier to put the burden on housekeepers than on those who buy, launder, iron and fold the sheets.

It’s heartbreaking to hear the hotel housekeepers’ stories. There are 550,000 hotel rooms in California, and more than 10,000 housekeepers. Most of them are women – mostly poor, women of color. These vulnerable employees don’t have the money and power of the luxury hotels they work for.

They have come to the Legislature by the dozens to tell their stories and show their bruised and battered knees, their aching backs and their sore shoulders in support of SB 432. One of them compared her disfigured knees to those of an NFL football player. Another asked the Legislature why it is that professional baseball catchers have masks, chest protectors, knee pads and gloves to protect their bodies from dangerous work, but hotel housekeepers can’t even get a mop to clean the bathroom floor.

These women clean 20 to 30 rooms every day, each week, year after year after year.  Providing a long-handled mop and fitted sheets is a minimal expense that would have a major impact on preventing injuries.

Hotels purchase new sheets each year anyway, so changing over to fitted sheets could easily be worked into the replacement process. We are still waiting to hear an answer from the industry as to why housekeepers must clean bathrooms on their hands and knees.

SB 432 would help hotel housekeepers get up off their knees and straighten their backs. It’s time to enact this common-sense reform and prevent injuries to those who clean hotel rooms. Our members are taking the broader view, and setting aside our own self-interest to help reduce workplace injuries. It’s good for business, workers, our economy and the workers’ compensation insurance system to reduce injuries. We challenge the hotel industry to do the same, and stop trying to keep hotel housekeepers down.

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