We deserve better: Hotel workers talking union 

click to enlarge Keisha Johnson, James Meyers and Sarah Lyons - MARK LEE
  • Keisha Johnson, James Meyers and Sarah Lyons
  • Mark Lee

Keisha Johnson may have missed her bus to work. She has lived for only a month at her current house, a small white-siding rent-to-own she shares with her husband, and she is still learning the IndyGo bus schedules. She steps off the curb and nervously scans the horizon north on Capitol Avenue. Finally, the No.4 comes into view. Sighing with relief, Johnson boards, finds a seat, and begins to put on her makeup.

As the No. 4 enters Downtown, the streets are deserted. It is a weekend morning, so the lawyers and accountants and government employees are not here today. No one has arrived yet to patronize the restaurants or to see a show. But as the bus pulls up in front of the Indiana Statehouse, an overflow crowd awaits. Huddled close together under a plastic shelter and stamping their feet against the unseasonable cold, some wear nametags around their necks, others wear work boots and heavy jackets. Like Johnson, most are wearing work uniforms.

Johnson steps off the bus and heads across the lawn of the Statehouse toward Washington Street. As she reaches the Westin Hotel, she veers past the main entrance, flicks her sweatshirt hood over her head, and walks in the rear door.

Johnson's parents were in the military, and she spent most of her childhood in Germany. After returning to Indianapolis and graduating from North Central High School, she worked in factory jobs and in restaurants before starting as a housekeeper at the Westin in 2007. Her husband is between delivery jobs right now, so they have taken in a roommate to help with the rent. Johnson knows Spanish and a bit of German, and has a bright and ironic sense of humor. ("I get to spend another weekend at the Westin," she laughs.) But her attempt to earn a nurseÕs aide degree was not successful. Her school loan required her to take a full load of classes, but Johnson could not pay the bills unless she worked full-time, too. She was perpetually exhausted, and her grades suffered. She hopes to enroll in online courses soon.

Johnson's title at the Westin is Room Attendant. She starts her workday with a list of assignments for the rooms she is expected to clean, up to 18 in a day. A cart stocked with clean towels and sheets waits for her in the hallway of her assigned rooms. She lugs the 120-pound cart down to the room entrances—no mean feat on thickly carpeted hallways—and knocks on the door. "Housekeeping," she calls.

Johnson is expected to complete a "stay-over" cleaning in just 10 minutes.She will make the bed, change towels, and ensure there is a full supply of soap and shampoo.The process for a "check-out" is supposed to take just 30 minutes, but even an experienced housekeeper like Johnson often takes much longer to clean a room. Johnson tells of rooms with gum stuck in the carpet, melted ice cream welded to the bottom of a trash can, a room where a child got sick in the bed. The housekeeper's nemesis is hair in the bathroom, where it tends to stick to shower curtains and sinks. And it is no fun using a scrub brush to clean a stranger's toilet. "There are crevices in the porcelain, so disgusting things can get into those crevices," Johnson says.

The Westin housekeeper's arsenal does not include a broom or a mop or pails. The cleaning is done on hands and knees. Some of the hotel mattresses Johnson and her colleagues must maneuver weigh more than 100 pounds each. Johnson was a gymnast in high school and is still very fit, and she takes care to stretch her back and hamstrings before she goes to work. But she still wakes up sore most mornings, and she has suffered leg cramps in the middle of the night. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that hotel workers have the highest injury rate of any service industry workers, and a recent union-funded study reported in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine showed housekeepers are at greater risk for injury than other hotel workers. JohnsonÕs older colleagues pop ibuprofen regularly, and Johnson has seen newer housekeepers get fired after they failed to clean their assigned rooms quickly enough. Johnson talks with pride about the attention to detail and people skills she has mastered in her work, but she acknowledges the need for speed, too. She refers to Rip It energy drink, just 99 cents in some stores and packing more caffeine than Red Bull or Rockstar, as "the housekeeper steroid."

The American Dream would suggest that all this hard work must be allowing Johnson to move up the economic ladder. The American Dream would be wrong. Johnson started at the Westin earning $7.50 per hour and just received her most recent raise to $9.27 per hour. She is never assigned a full 40 hours per week. Tips are unpredictable and often meager or non-existent, and Johnson cannot afford the premiums for the cheapest health insurance Westin provides. Although her wages easily exceed the federal and state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, they are far below the $14 per hour estimate of a living wage, the minimal cost of supporting a two-person family in Indianapolis according to the most recent calculations by the Poverty in America project at Penn State University.

That leaves Johnson in the most vulnerable position in the U.S. economy: too poor to pay all her bills, but with a reliable paycheck for her creditors to garnish. A fall at home last year led to an emergency room visit, five stitches, and a hospital bill she has not been able to pay. She has been evicted for being late on her rent, leading to court judgments. Johnson receives bill collector calls every day. Her student loan debt was eventually collected out of her paycheck for more than a year.Johnson has supported an effort to organize Indianapolis hotel workers into a union, and she testified in front of a City-County Council hearing in June about the use of temporary workers in the local hotels. Wearing a bright red "UNITE HERE" T-shirt, Johnson spoke briefly and clearly into the microphone. But she admitted later that she was rattled by the unexpected sight of her Westin general manager sitting in front of the hearing room. "I was shaking like a leaf," she recalls. "All I could think of is that 'I am going to get fired, fired, fired!'"

She did not get fired, and she continues to support the union campaign. Johnson knows housekeepers in unionized hotels are paid significantly more than she is and have more affordable health insurance. But it is not just about the money. "I have always seen housekeeping as a noble profession," she says. "Someday, I want to be one of those moms who can send kids to college and have all the bills paid. Why can't I do that as a housekeeper?"

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