When I first started here, it was better,” says Elvia Claudio, reflecting on her three years cleaning rooms at downtown’s stately Grand Hyatt hotel. At 47, she’s cleaned hotels for almost a decade, and now sufferers from the same back and joint aches that plague most long-time housekeepers. “The work was manageable and we weren’t treated like this.”
Room quotas have exploded over the past couple years, she says, from about 15 rooms a day to now as many as 30. And if you’re injured on the job while trying to keep up, good luck, she says. A searing pain shot through Claudio’s wrist earlier this year — an early indicator of carpal tunnel, she later found out — while she rushed to remake a bed. “[The doctor] placed restrictions on me, what work I could do, how many rooms I should do per day. The [human resources] lady, she called and didn’t like that. The Hyatt didn’t like those restrictions, so they called the doctor to get them taken off,” Claudio said.
In an angry sea of red shirts, whistles, clappers, and placards groaning beneath the towering Grand Hyatt last Thursday were many similar stories. Hundreds of current and former hotel workers, union organizers, and local supporters gathered in the hotel’s shadow to decry working conditions at the hotel.
As part of its years-long effort targeting the Hyatt, service-industry union Unite Here drummed up roughly 300 supporters to swarm the downtown hotel, making it the largest local Hyatt protest in recent memory. Grand Hyatt patrons and staff peered through hotel windows and emptied out onto balconies overlooking the marchers as current and former housekeepers spoke of what they called unreasonable room quotas, dangerous work conditions, and company indifference to workplace injury. In the shadow of the Hyatt, Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a well-known union supporter, took the bullhorn and shouted, “You’re an employer who thinks nothing of violating the law. You treat your employees in a way that is morally wrong.”
At one point, 11 protestors calmly walked out onto the Market Street crosswalk below the hotel as the finale of Thursday’s rally. They linked arms, blocking the busy thoroughfare. It was the first time local Unite Here organizers chose civil disobedience to amplify their message. Within minutes, police took all 11 to the hotel’s parking garage, where the protestors were arrested out of sight of the gathered crowd and taken to spend the night in jail.
The arrestees included Rene Escobar, a former Hyatt housekeeper injured on the job. She fought the hotel, eventually winning a compensation claim, and Hyatt paid for her shoulder surgery. Still, Escobar now has permanent damage and is no longer fit to work.
Claudio’s daughter Perla Terrazas, another of those arrested, remarked, “It’s really upsetting to listen to my mother when she comes home, to hear about her and the others being treated like this.”
Maria Soto, another Grand Hyatt housekeeper, says she’s sometimes pushed to clean as many as 30 rooms a day, which Unite Here insists is double the industry average. The heavy workload leads to rushing and increased injuries, which Soto claims aren’t taken seriously. Doctors, she said, are pressured by hotel management not to place work restrictions on housekeeping staff, and some housekeepers are now afraid to even seek medical help, afraid that they’ll anger management. “There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of tension. And when you’re injured, a lot of people work through it because you don’t have a choice,” she said.
The claims aren’t new among local Hyatt workers or unique to the chain’s San Antonio location. Late last year, Unite Here filed a mountain of claims against Hyatt Hotels Corporation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, claims involving properties across the country, including San Antonio. Among the claims were those of former Grand Hyatt worker Maria Carmen Dominguez, who complained repetitive cleaning had strained her shoulder, an injury that went untreated after she was seen by a company-approved doctor. “Had they given her time to heal, it would have been just fine,” said Bethany Holmes, a local Unite Here organizer. “Since she kept working, and since [the Hyatt] wouldn’t agree to the right work restrictions for her, the ligament in her shoulder ended up tearing and now she can’t work at all,” Holmes said, adding that Dominguez’s case was only recently settled.
“It’s that they intimidate people, that’s what bothers me the most,” said Ana Esparza, another Grand Hyatt housekeeper who protested last week. “I know people who are afraid [to go to the doctor]. It’s like someone is intimidating them.”
Drawing attention to what the group calls the “housekeeping crisis” in San Antonio and across the country, Unite Here organized a series of protests outside Hyatt properties nationwide last week, culminating in at least 80 arrests in San Francisco, and at least 35 outside a Hyatt hotel in Cambridge, Mass. In Chicago, Hyatt staff turned heat lamps on the gathered crowd of protesters, for which Park Hyatt Chicago management later issued a public apology, blaming a rogue manager.
Unite Here’s increased efforts in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have already begun to bear fruit as workers, led by the union, barrage the Hyatt with complaints of unfair labor practices, unsafe working conditions, and inadequate healthcare coverage, said Chris Kutalik, a Unite Here organizer. In April, San Antonio workers protested outside the Grand Hyatt saying the company was encouraging employees to put their families on welfare, distributing CHIP and Medicaid information with employee healthcare registration packets. The union claims Hyatt properties across the country have reacted to Unite Here’s demands by picking off long-time workers and replacing them with minimum-wage temps.
Organizers here say they hope Thursday’s action will be the first to spark a union revival across downtown’s mostly service economy, leading to large-scale unionizing of River Walk hotel staff. “When we look at San Antonio, we’re not just looking at the Hyatt. We’re hoping to help organize all the hotels downtown. … We know too well the conditions at the Hyatt aren’t unique,” Kutalik said.
Unite Here has scored some small victories in its three years organizing local Hyatt workers. After a settlement last year between the hotel, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, and Unite Here the Grand Hyatt began posting flyers at workstations throughout the hotel acknowledging employees’ right to organize, and the hotel hired back one employee who claimed he was fired in retaliation for union organizing.
Unite Here has also set its sights on building a more labor-friendly council in San Antonio, mimicking similar strategies in cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix by launching a massive campaigning effort behind now District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal’s recent run for office. Bernal himself made a short appearance at Thursday’s rally.
According to Unite Here’s figures, the San Antonio hospitality industry is the area’s third-largest employer, closely behind medical services and defense-related jobs. The industry, they say, employs one out of eight workers in the area, though at a local average wage between $8.39 and $8.69 per hour, well below the average national wage for similar jobs, which trends between $9.72 to $9.90 per hour.
The group also points to an American Journal of Industrial Medicine study published last year examining five large hotel companies that showed Hyatt workers with the highest rate of injuries — something union organizers insist is due to increasingly unsafe working conditions. Women on staff are also 50 percent more likely to be injured than men, and Hispanic women had double the rate of injury of their white counterparts, according to the study.
Hyatt managers have called Unite Here’s actions against the hotel chain an aggressive smear campaign and question the AJIM study. In response to Thursday’s arrests, Tom Netting, the Grand Hyatt’s managing director, released a written statement saying, “Instead of bargaining in good faith, Unite Here union leaders have decided to remain the only obstacle standing in the way of what would provide associates with higher hourly wages, healthcare coverage and enhanced retirement contributions.
“While the union membership demonstrates, we remain prepared to complete negotiations or elections to allow our associates to decide what kind of work-life they choose to have,” he said.
Unite Here’s Holmes doesn’t buy it.
“When I speak to doctors who work on these workers’ comp cases, they’ll say that you’ll never see anything worse than a strain or a contusion coming out of these places. … We looked at paperwork from this one woman who had a torn ligament in her knee, and they were saying she just had a contusion,” Holmes said. “It’s very hard for the workers to get a good doctor’s opinion, especially when H.R.’s pressuring them.”
Said Claudio: “Really, I don’t think the doctor’s opinion matters as much as H.R.’s opinion.”
Surrounded last week by a wave of signs and chanting protestors, Kutalik said last week’s arrests are just a sign of what’s to come. “This is just the beginning of this full-court press. This is escalation, that is what’s happening here. We’re gaining momentum, really building this local movement.” •