For Lydia Hernandez, the numbers don’t add up.
Every morning, she reports to work at the Hilton at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River, where she has to clean 14 rooms. That’s down from the 16-room quota pre-pandemic, but the workload for her 8½-hour shift is still unmanageable, she says.
During the health crisis, Hernandez, 58, has noticed that the hotel’s clientele has shifted away from its normal business travelers, and some guests are leaving rooms in worse shape than she’s seen in most of her 15 years at the hotel. And because of city and state orders, she has to clean and disinfect rooms more thoroughly than before, focusing on parts of the room that previously weren’t so important: light fixtures, doorknobs, remote controls. On top of that, she said, management has made it clear it doesn’t want workers putting in overtime.
“We try our best,” she said. “We try to disinfect everything. But we can’t do it the way we want to because we got 13 other rooms to do.”
Philadelphia’s hotel industry was gutted when the city went into lock down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. More than half of the city’s approximately 50 hotels suspended operations. Occupancy dropped to 22% in early April. And thousands of workers were laid off.
Now, as occupancy creeps back up and hotels start to recall staff, workers are fighting for policies that will give them the ability to follow city and state public-health orders. Otherwise, they say, employees and guests are all at risk. It’s a problem plaguing workers in many industries trying to reopen and especially urgent as the city had not issued any fines or cease-operation orders to businesses breaking the rules as of late last month.
Hotels are complying with some of the more visible parts of the COVID guidelines, like installing plastic glass barriers between staff and guests at front desks, said Katharine Cristiani, executive vice president at Unite Here Local 274, a union that represents Philly hotel workers, including those at the Hilton at Penn’s Landing, where workers held a demonstration Sunday at noon. But hotels are not always following the rules that are harder to spot in a hotel lobby, like disinfecting high-touch surfaces every four hours or requiring guests to wear masks.
“It’s not just a worker safety issue,” Cristiani said. “It’s a public health issue.”
Jason Dunlap, a houseman at the Hilton at Penn’s Landing, says the lobby attendant who is in charge of disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as elevator buttons, works from noon to 8 p.m. Outside of those hours, no one on staff is doing that job.
And though the hotel requires guests to wear masks, it is no one’s job to enforce that rule, and guests regularly flout it, Dunlap said. The 39-year-old father of four is currently self-isolating in his North Philly home and awaiting COVID-19 test results because he broke up a fight between two guests. One said the other gave him the virus. Neither was wearing a mask.
Hernandez, the housekeeper, said guests often come up to her without a mask to ask for linens or towels, and she has to tell them to stay six feet away and to put on a mask.
The Hilton at Penn’s Landing, which is run by Pyramid Hotel Group, said in a statement that “we meet or exceed all guidance from the federal government and CDC, WHO, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia, which include the frequent cleaning of high-traffic and high-touch locations throughout the hotel with cleaning products approved by the EPA.”
The hotel added that it has “maintained an open line of communication with housekeepers regarding their workload during the pandemic and has been, and will continue to be, flexible regarding the number of rooms that it expects housekeepers to clean on a daily basis as part of its commitment to keeping all team members safe.”
Hotels have generally lowered room quotas for housekeepers during the pandemic so they can take extra cleaning measures, said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.
Hotels are requiring guests to wear masks, he said, but wasn’t sure whether there were consequences for guests who did not follow that rule. He said that’s up to each individual hotel.
Although the number of guests has been steadily growing, Grose said occupancy was still just over 30% on July 4, the best day in recent months.
“We’re working hard to let people know our hotels are clean and safe,” he said.
Of the thousands of hotel workers laid off in Philly, he said, not many have been called back so far. Of the 1,000 hotel workers that Unite Here represented during pre-pandemic times, about 200 are working right now, Cristiani said.
In New York, Unite Here and the hotel industry cut a deal that lowered workload by 25% for housekeepers so that they could effectively clean rooms to the standards necessary. In Philadelphia, Cristiani said Unite Here is fighting for a similar deal, as well as staffers to ensure that guests are wearing masks and to do the round-the-clock cleaning required by the city and state health orders.
Hernandez, who lives in West Philly with her two “grandbabies,” said she hoped management would reduce the workload for her and her coworkers because of the stress and strain on their bodies.
“We’re all in pain,” she said. “Everything hurts.”
She’s also worried about her health. “I can’t afford to get sick,” she said, “and give it to my two little ones and my daughter.”