First confession– I haven’t pushed a linen cart for over thirty years, but I feel called to expose the fundamental truth about the maid biz.
It’s about cleaning rooms.
The people who go to work every day and keep our hotels, motels, hospitals and public spaces from becoming dens of contagion and unlivable don’t usually get a lot of press. The work is unglamorous, the pay is low, the likelihood of promotion is less than the risk of demotion. A back injury can pretty much end your future in the hospitality industry.
The DSK case has thrown a spotlight on hotels, and intrepid reporters have actually interviewed some maids. This is a good thing.
But the reporters are focusing on the dangers and disrespect workers may face, leaving the impression that most of the workday is spent eluding pervs. Let me set the record straight. Most of the day is spent cleaning rooms.
I worked in two motels near Green Airport when I got out of high school. Later, finding myself unemployed, with even the factories drying up, I worked at a big motel near the State House. There was not much difference between them, and as far as I can see, the job has not changed much. Two of the motels are long gone, the third has brigades of lawyers and a special relationship with God, so I’m not going to name names.
A typical shift is 9am-2pm. You get a list of rooms to clean. If the– the management calls them ‘guests’, but they weren’t my guests. If the transients are checking out you have to change the sheets and scrub the tub. Otherwise you make the bed and vacuum around their stuff, mop the bathroom and replace towels. Wipe the toilet with a rag and put on a paper strip that says, ‘Sanitized for Your Protection’.
Management supplied our uniforms, baggy polyester pantsuits in weird colors. Mint green, and later, the shade of orange people wear in the woods so they are not mistaken for deer. I think that was so the manager could spot us at a distance. I kind of envied a high school classmate of mine who I discovered working at the front desk. Her pantsuit was chocolate brown.
The women and girls I worked with came from all kinds of backgrounds. They were kids on their first jobs and mature women keeping the bills paid. We took pride in our work, but had little regard for the transients. It was a hindrance if they were around. I remember a minor TV star, who stood in the hall asking in a whiny voice if he could get his pants pressed. We just gave him a ‘where do you think you are, the Biltmore?’ look.
We despised the owners, who liked to strut around in suits uselessly. “There go the big s–ts.” my friend Olivia said. Olivia was an undiscovered artist and fun to talk to on breaks. The suits, I heard, had a party and invited some of the maids and assaulted them in a swimming pool. Although I blamed the suits, I also wondered why any woman would trust these guys. They wore white loafers with matching belts and stinky cologne.
Speaking of smells, I think my dislike of air conditioning comes from walking from summer heat into those stale, chilly motel rooms. Maybe they never changed the filters in the air conditioners. Nothing really had to be clean, it just had to look clean.
The transients were mostly away during our work hours. I drew some conclusions from what they left in the rooms, and here is my rating of transients– good, bad and ugly…
Do Not Disturb– Best. You don’t have to clean that room and still get paid the same.
Truckers– Good. They arrive, walk to the bed, fall on top of it, check out the next day and don’t stick around to make a mess.
Tourists– Okay. As long as they don’t eat in their rooms.
Tourists with kids– Messy, cluttered, hope they’re out touring something.
Jehovah’s Witnesses– Bad. They bring hundreds of suitcases and tons of food. There is only a narrow strip of rug you can vacuum and that is strewn with sunflower seeds. This is the highlight of their year and they are going to make the most of it.
Shriners– Very Bad. They bring enough liquor to open a package store, and if you are walking behind them with an arm full of linen they will let the door slam in your face. And they dress weird. I would explain this to the Ladies Auxiliary, when they called me for donations, and finally they stopped calling.
My High School English Teacher– Spotted sneaking out of a room. I felt sorry for him, that he couldn’t afford an apartment.
Three Guys Who Appeared in a Deserted Hall and Tried to Get Me to Open a Door– Ugly. I pretended to try, they went away. This is one reason I believe that a maid could be in danger and no one would know. I was lucky that time.
Transient who accused me of stealing a glass– I thought it belonged to the motel and put it on the cart. What would I want with their glass? The wife gave me a dollar tip, I guess to make up. Jeeze.
That was in the big motel in Providence. My career there started with a mandatory unpaid inservice, but they served lunch. They showed us a cartoon about a very bad thing called ‘unions’, so that our tiny minds would be converted.
The job was the basic cleaning, and they continued to serve lunch, which was good. One day they served Brie from some banquet, and most of the maids thought it was something that had gone bad and wouldn’t touch it. More for me. Later there was a scandalously expensive wedding– just before that kind of thing became commonplace. A million dollars they said it cost, and none of the transients left a tip.
For a couple of weeks I was assigned to work in the laundry, and soon realized that I was the only person there who was not impaired. One poor young woman with Down Syndrome lasted about half a day, then spent the next few hours standing in front of the wall and rocking. It was about 100 degrees, but a dry heat, from all the dryers. There was only one man, a jovial guy named Ralph, who’d look at us benevolently and say,
“All the girls are happy today. All the girls are making money today.”
He would say that a few thousand times. And then the next day he would say it again.
One day he was gone. Pat told me that the day before, Ralph had been going off on his usual and Agnes just flipped. She took a big stack of sheets and whacked him over the head. He ran out and stayed away for weeks.
I was supposed to throw away a bunch of those sheets because of minor spots, but I asked the manager if I could take them home. After consultation with someone important, he said yes, which was a great concession on their part and I had to be grateful, but sheets are expensive.
Sheets were the only enduring benefit I took away from that job, the pay was spent before the next check came in– minimum wage.
I found a job in photofinishing and I was out of there.
Reading about the DSK case, I noted many misconceptions about what a maid’s job is like. Some underestimated the isolation and vulnerability of the workers, and others gave the impression that maids tolerate constant insults, which is not true.
I thought the Sofitel’s response to the incident was quick and appropriate, and I think the union deserves a great deal of credit for maintaining a culture of respect for the workers. Management, too, performed admirably. I hope they won’t pay too high a price for not covering up an allegation against an important customer.
I was lucky to get a job when I needed one. I don’t mind honest work. Toilets don’t clean themselves. I do think that if I had to look forward to a life of living on minimum wage the future would have looked pretty bleak.
The Sofitel paid a living wage with job security and health benefits. The maid was robbed of a good job. She’s paid a heavy price for reporting the crime. My friend Ruth, who helped me recall my motel maid days, gave me a quote from Barbara Eherenreich, author of ‘Nickled and Dimed’.
“There’s no such thing as unskilled labor.”