Unfair treatment is common at hotels, workers say. For managers, it’s a balancing act

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In the back rooms of hotels around the nation, managers and their workers juggle a tricky balancing act — one that the industry is sometimes loathe to discuss.

On the one side are the economics of a seasonal, consumer-driven business and the intricacies of overseeing large, diverse groups of people, said Kevin Murphy, chair of the hospitality services department at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

U.S. hotels, which earned an average profit margin of about 38 percent in 2016, according to hotel data and analytics firm STR, are prey to the vagaries of the traveling public.

Last year in Miami-Dade County, hotel performance slipped to levels unseen since the Great Recession because of the local transmission of mosquito-borne illness Zika, a severe drop off of travel from Brazil and a ballooning number of new hotel rooms. The combination has had a chilling effect on South Florida, where the industry is an important economic driver. The $25 billion Miami-Dade tourism industry is responsible for 143,700 direct jobs; in Broward, the $14.2-billion industry produces 94,100 direct jobs, according to the most recent numbers available.

But on the other side are low-wage hotel workers, many of whom live paycheck-to-paycheck and are directly impacted when the number of visitors slide. During the height of the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance, some Fontainebleau hotel housekeepers in Miami Beach reported getting little work. Gerdine Verssagne, a 36-year-old Fontainebleau housekeeper, said that from August to January, there were weeks where she only worked one, two or three days. Sometimes, she was not scheduled to work at all. (The Fontainebleau reported experiencing the worst three weeks it had had in 15 years during September because of Zika.)

Though statistics are difficult to pin down, housekeepers could account for as much as one-third of Miami-Dade’s hotel employees. While making enough money to keep their families afloat is their primary concern, their worries extend beyond wages. Erratic schedules, workload, hostile conditions and benefits — which can vary widely— contribute to the complexities of their employment.

In Miami Beach, a housekeeper in a non-union hotel can expect to start at minimum wage, $8.10, or slightly more. Workers at the unionized Fontainebleau for instance, start at $11.45, said Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355, the county’s only hotel union. It represents the 200 housekeepers at the Fontainebleau and a handful of other hotels in Miami-Dade. (Unite Here is the country’s largest hotel union.)

The Fontainebleau’s housekeepers have better conditions than most. Their union contract limits the workload to 14 rooms per eight-hour workday, with half an hour for lunch. Each worker also gets health benefits and paid vacation-and-sick time. The Fontainebleau and the Miami Beach Resort are the only two Beach hotels with union representation.

At other hotels, lower wages are likely. Benefits including health insurance and paid time off vary widely. Some workers at other hotels have reported cleaning nearly 30 rooms a day and not receiving raises for three decades, Walsh said. Workers at non-union hotels refrain from discussing conditions openly.

Walsh and her members say that at many hotels, managers curate a culture of fear. “A lot [of the housekeepers] end up staying nine, 10, 11 hours to finish up a room.” Even at the Fontainebleau, some housekeepers say they are afraid they’ll be replaced if they don’t finish on time, and routinely skip lunch or stay later to finish cleaning rooms.

Many of them have never seen the lobby.

Hotel job conditions

Through union meetings and individual interviews, nearly 50 workers at the Fontainebleau and former employees at the SLS South Beach told the Herald they have faced intimidation and denials for requests to apply to different positions. Some managers manipulate schedules to avoid awarding overtime — which usually kicks in after 40 hours weekly rather than with a daily allotment.

Verssagne said managers put guests before their own employees.

“Last month, I was in room, and a male guest was naked, he knocked and came inside the room,” Verssagne, who is Haitian and speaks primarily Creole, told the Herald in English. “I called security. You know what’s the first thing they did? [The officer] look at the [time card] punch to see if I was supposed to be working.”

The Fontainebleau said it views its “team members as a family,” but declined to comment directly on the workplace issues its employees raised. When asked about those same complaints, Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said worker issues are limited to “workforce housing and transportation” and did not answer questions about other types of issues.

But Robert Hill, general manager of the InterContinental Miami and chair of the hotel associations’ Downtown/Brickell committee, did add that at hotels with higher fluctuation in their occupancy, there is generally more turnover because of issues that arise around scheduling. Still, the local industry does celebrate its employees at all levels, as it recently did at the annual Inn Key Awards. More than 400 employees, including housekeepers and bell men, were honored, Hill said.

“It’s hard to see when you see people there and they are excited about being nominated, that this is a rampant issue across the industry,” Hill said. “I think yeah, there may be isolated cases where you have managers that are not good managers, but here at the InterContinental Miami in downtown, my key focus is on developing the mangers that lead the colleagues and the line employees of the hotels because at the end of the day, they are the people that take care of the guests.”

Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau said worker challenges are of “critical” importance to the hospitality industry. But as a marketing organization, the bureau has limited direct impact on worker conditions.

“We have an obligation to recognize their contributions and in doing so hopefully influence the issues we don’t have direct control over,” Aedo said. “We would hope that ownership and management recognizes the importance that these employees play.”

Complaints about work conditions are common nationwide in the hospitality industry. Some are simply a function of the demand-driven business, say experts.

“Hotels have seasonality, they have weekends, so they have ups and downs in their business — that creates scheduling challenges for the managers,” Murphy said. “[The hotels] are concerned with profits. If they have to cut their hours to be in line with the profit goals they will do that as well.”

“Some workers may not get full shifts, or they may be spread out across multiple buildings. It’s not necessarily intentional worker abuse, but it becomes part of the job conditions because of the economic part of making a hotel run.”

In Miami-Dade, workers recently have alleged discrimination.

In April, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in Miami on behalf of 15 black Haitian dishwashers at the SLS South Beach. They claim managers called them “slaves,” fired them and replaced them with light-skinned Hispanic workers on the same day. The EEOC took the case on after finding “reasonable cause to believe the discrimination alleged occurred,” the commission said.

“We thought this was wrong, this should not happen in America.” said Cedene Beaubrun, one of the former SLS workers involved in the lawsuit.

James L. Greeley, chief legal officer for hospitality company sbe, which currently owns the 140-room SLS, said that when the issue came to the hotel’s attention, it “ immediately conducted a thorough internal investigation and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

“We do not believe we have done anything wrong and will fully defend our company against any false claims,” Greeley said in a statement.

Stuck in the cycle

Possibly the biggest challenge for hospitality workers living paycheck-to-paycheck is getting trapped in low-paying positions. Some hotels schedules vary from week to week, making it difficult to attend classes that could improve their prospects.

Managers are reluctant to transfer workers to different departments and discourage workers from even asking for promotions, said Fontainebleau housekeeper Verssagne. She was denied a request to move to a server job, she said.

Erlande Pierre-Zamor, a 43-year-old Fontainebleau housekeeper and single mom who lives in Miami Gardens, said she wants to study to be a certified nurse assistant while she puts her eldest son, Wilder, through the nursing program at Miami-Dade College. But the hotel won’t offer a set schedule for her to plan her classes.

“There are younger folks who asked the company for a schedule so they can go to school,” Pierre-Zamor said in Creole through a translator. “[The company] said, ‘This is where you belong. This is where you’re going to stay.’ I don’t have other options; I have to work for my kids.”

For its part, the Fontainebleau “encourages team members to apply for open positions in other departments and greatly value promoting from within,” said Silvia Pereda, the hotel’s vice president of human resources. Of its estimated 2,100 employees, more than 360 were part of department transfers and international promotions since January 2016, she said.

Local colleges and universities seek to bridge gaps. In the past decade, a number of hospitality training programs have opened to prepare workers for jobs ranging from entry-level positions to senior-track roles.

The latest addition will be the hotel union’s training program at the Overtown Performing Arts Center, set to open this year, which will train workers already in local hotels for positions in concert with needs of employer partners. So far, Unite Here has partnered with Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels and Levy Restaurants, Marlins Park’s concessionaire. The program is free to employees and built around their schedules.

The goal, Walsh said, is to stop fostering the cycle mentality, where one worker could be a housekeeper for decades. Despite her 21-year tenure, Fontainebleau housekeeper Odelie Paret, for instance, has always worked as a housekeeper. She hasn’t applied for other jobs.

That comes despite the Fontainebleau’s six decades of leadership, in which it has “led the way on how to treat workers … the hotel has offered some of the better wages and benefits and workload at the hotel,” Walsh said.

But lately, said Paret, even at the famed Rat Pack haunt, the culture is shifting.

Years ago, management expectations seemed realistic. Now, “you have more work. You have more things to do in the room,” Paret said in English. “[Management says] something by the mouth, but it’s not coming from the heart.”

“If I had started the job like it is now, I can’t do the job for 21 years.”

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