It was supposed to make the housekeepers' jobs easier.
The iPod they got every morning featured an app that would tell them which rooms they had to clean. They wouldn't have to worry about losing the piece of paper where they kept track of their day. They wouldn't have to dial a code into the room telephone to let the front desk know the room was done — now, they could just press a button.
But two years later, housekeepers at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown say the new tool, which allows managers to give them room assignments on-demand, has actually made their job harder. It takes away their ability to organize their day and makes the work more physically demanding as it sends them zigzagging across the hotel floors. Their experience shows how workers are often left out of the narrative when industry leaders champion sorely needed tech solutions.
When they had paper schedules, Kat Payne, a housekeeper at the Marriott Downtown for the last eight years, had her days down to a science.
She knew that occupied rooms were quicker to clean than checkout rooms, and that guests who left for the day appreciated their rooms being cleaned by the time they returned, so she'd finish the occupied rooms in the morning and focus on the checkouts afterward.
That's not possible anymore. Housekeepers have to follow the assignments given on the app, known in-house as "Rex," the original name for what's now called HotSOS Housekeeping by tech company Amadeus. Often that means doing occupied rooms much later in the day — and guests sometimes get upset and complain to management, wondering why the housekeeper has skipped their room even though the guests had seen them cleaning rooms on the floor all day.
It's hard to face them, Payne said, but what can she say? That the app made her do it?
"We have to take the heat," she said.
The app also usually gives, at most, a few assignments at a time so there's no way to plan a route, which housekeepers said was particularly important at the Marriott Downtown, the city's biggest hotel spanning a whole city block. Now, with the app, Payne and her coworkers find themselves pushing their carts, heavy with linens and towels and toiletries, back and forth on thick carpet from one end of the hotel to the other.
"You're chained to your cart with blinders on," said Payne, a mother of two who lives in East Oak Lane and works nights at a bar on North Broad.
How apps are making hotels more productive
The Marriott did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
But there are some obvious benefits to choosing a tool like this.
The app offers management more control over what housekeepers are doing and when they do it, which is crucial to a business model that's unpredictable: When someone could walk in at any moment looking for a room, the amount of time it takes to flip a room and get it ready can make or break a booking. And if your workers are dispersed all over a 23-floor hotel, it's not easy to get in touch with them immediately. (Payne says in the pre-iPod days, they'd call her cell if they needed to rush a room.)
An app also allows a hotel to collect data on its workforce: With HotSOS, where housekeepers press one button when they begin cleaning a room and another when they finish, the Marriott can track how long it takes to clean a room and tweak its workflow as necessary.
Tech companies have recognized this demand. In 2013, Amadeus, the maker of HotSOS, bought hotel software company Newmarket in a massive $500 million deal.
In the summer of 2016, Greg Larson, the CFO of Host Hotels and Resorts, which owns a minority stake in the Marriott Downtown, told analysts and investors that Host was working on increasing productivity by implementing tech tools that would "save on time and labor expense while getting guests into rooms faster." A year later on an earnings call, he reported that productivity was indeed up and referenced how a tech tool was resulting in "more efficient deployment of housekeeping labor."
But even if a tech tool or platform does make work more efficient for everyone, there are often "hidden off-loaded costs," said Julia Ticona, a Data & Society Research Institute scholar who focuses on how technology intersects with work.
Take flexibility, for example. With the iPod, management has more control to give room assignments on the fly. That comes at the expense of housekeepers' flexibility to determine how they'll organize their day.
"Somebody's gotta give to allow for flexibility to happen," she said. "It isn't just created out of thin air."
Tech tools also tend toward standardization, Ticona said, not leaving a lot of wiggle room for unpredictability. But these jobs are inherently unpredictable, as housekeepers deal with people's whims and habits and moods.
What the app doesn’t know
But there are still limitations to the app. There are some things that only a worker on the front lines would know.
Edith Santos, a 72-year-old who's been with the Marriott for 24 years, says if she saw a guest leave their room in the morning, she'd know that she could get in and clean. But she's not allowed to do that anymore — she has to follow the app. And there's no way for the app to know if a guest has left for the day, which means it might give housekeepers an assignment all the way at the other end of the floor, only for them to knock on the door and find out that the guest wants them to come back later.
When the WiFi doesn't work? That's the worst, the housekeepers said. Marisol Mendez says she knows the dead zones on her floor and that she has to walk away to get a signal.
And in a job like theirs, Mendez says, every move counts: They're getting on their hands and knees countless times throughout the day to clean under the sink, check under the bed for trash, and detail the floors in the bathroom, because they don't use mops — just rags. So something small, like traveling to one room that's a little farther away, takes a toll. Mendez says she returns to her home in North Philly every evening feeling "beat up."
Chantal Boeckman, a spokesperson for housekeeping app maker Amadeus, said that each hotel can adapt the app to fit its needs and that it offers to send staffers out to hotels to help them tailor the tool.
Mendez and coworkers Santos and Payne are part of a group of Marriott Downtown workers who are looking to unionize with hospitality union Unite Here. The housekeepers say they hope the union will give them a voice with management, a way to talk about how the app sometimes hurts their ability to do a good job.
Payne takes pride in her work. She said she loves striving for that "Marriott standard" with every room she cleans and providing the best customer service — it's why she loves working her second job as a bartender, too.
She hopes she and her coworkers can get "a fair process" around unionizing — "so we can love our jobs again."