San Diego Much of the downtown hotel industry gets a "double subsidy of taxpayer support plus public assistance for its hardest workers,"
Micah Mitrosky tells me. That's one conclusion she reached after taking the Graduate Student Practicum offered by SDSU's sociology department last spring. Mitrosky calls the class her most important in the "applied track" master's degree program at the university. "It's one thing to read about a subject, but quite another to learn how to dig up material yourself," she says.
The practicum was taught by Jill Esbenshade, who decided to focus the class on San Diego's hotel industry. SDSU sociology professors "rotate" teaching the class, each choosing the focus according to an expertise. Esbenshade's choice was informed by her extensive research into labor conditions in immigrant sweatshops.
The practicum's one assignment for Mitrosky and ten other students was to participate in writing a research paper. Esbenshade divided them into three teams according to their interests: government-data research, worker surveys, and manager interviews. The students had one semester to do their research and write the paper. Mitrosky called the assignment "the most stressful school experience I've ever had. It was so difficult working with census data that I had to get help from Nadine Misiaszek in [SDSU's] Social Science Research Lab. She knew the syntax for writing computer programs to get data coded, allowing us to access it."
A fortuitous development that helped those students doing worker surveys was a two-week picket demonstration in mid-March at Doug Manchester's Grand Hyatt, San Diego's largest hotel. Though not a strike or work stoppage, the event put demonstrating workers outside the hotel, where the students could hand them surveys and interview them without interrupting their work.
Eventually the students wrote a 46-page, single-spaced report they titled "Researching the Hotel Industry in San Diego: Profits, Pain and Pillows." The report starts off by detailing figures like the following. In 2005, "27 million visitors spent [5.8] billion dollars" in San Diego. "Sixteen million of these visitors spent at least one night.... [There] are currently 452 hotels and motels with over 54,000 available rooms in the county. Another 1500 rooms are offered through casinos, spas and bed and breakfasts."
"In 2005," according to the report, "San Diego's [hotel] occupancy rate was 72.3 [percent] while nationwide, the occupancy rate stood at 60.7 percent. These figures are especially impressive given that San Diego County added more hotel rooms than any of the top 25 [markets]...."
Turning to those employed, "The local hotel workers' union...estimates that there are currently 23,815 full-time service hotel workers in the county, 2500 of whom are unionized. In terms of numbers of employees," says the report, "San Diego has experienced growth at a faster rate than California.... According to quarterly figures, from 2002 to 2004, the number employed in the California accommodation [industry] increased by 7.68 percent, while San Diego demonstrated a 10 percent increase."
The students' paper argues that much of the hotel industry's growth has taken place on public land. Development approved by the Centre City Development Corporation "takes place in designated Economic Enterprise Zones...in which businesses can claim certain state income tax savings and other advantages.... Development projects planned in these areas and on public land, such as new hotels, are often offered subsidies...which take multiple forms.... However, critics believe that the City and other public entities are using taxpayer money to support private enterprise that could otherwise be used for city services."
The report is a broad indictment of the industry for producing huge profits for ownership but putting a tightfisted and indifferent face toward its bottom-rung employees. It especially highlights the plight of housekeepers, mostly women, who clean up after guests and prepare rooms for new occupants.
In their study, the students found the median hotel housekeeper wage in San Diego to be $10.63 per hour. But their portrayal of callousness to workers' injuries struck me as the report's most damning element. A section of the paper called "Isabella's Experience" documents painful hand and lower-back injuries to one of the housekeepers. The injuries result primarily from bending over and lifting mattresses in making beds. "Isabella," write the students, "is currently taking both over the counter and prescription medications for the pain in her hand, taking one pill three times a day. Over the past month, she has had severe pain in her lower back and severe headaches, as well as pain throughout the rest of her body."
"Margarita's Experience" recounts a housekeeper suffering tendonitis twice during her employment at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. "Her hands and arms are constantly inflamed," according to the report. "Her lower back is in persistent pain since her duties as a housekeeper require her to bend down continuously throughout the day.... 'They [the hotel] are physically killing us,' Margarita says."
The students acknowledge that these stories are subjective and that their sample of workers was skewed by interviewing only workers at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. But the literature they reviewed on the condition of hotel housekeepers nationally agrees with the personal stories. The students cite a December 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle that stated, "There were 17,980 injuries among housekeepers and maids across the country in 2004 that led to days missed from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers are probably far higher...because workers are reluctant to report their injuries for fear of being reprimanded or fired." A study of 1000 hotel workers in Las Vegas by the University of California at San Francisco Medical School "indicated that three out of four hotel housekeepers experience 'very severe pain' due to increased working conditions."
The increased workload, according to the report, has resulted largely from a new type of luxury bed that became popular in the hotel industry during the last few years. First installed as the "Heavenly Bed" by Westin Hotels, the new bed was part of a branding technique to develop loyalty among customers. A June 2005 Travel and Leisure article called "Battle of the Beds" labeled the attraction as "an oasis for the weary traveler" and described it as "a bright white duvet, a down blanket, five feather-and-down pillows, three 230-thread count sheets (one sheet is laid over the blanket, a practice known as triple sheeting), and a custom-designed 12H -inch-thick Simmons mattress with 900 individual coils."
But hotel housekeepers see the bed quite differently. Luxury beds such as the Heavenly Bed require workers to lean much farther over them and to lift their heavy mattresses as they tuck in sheets. Recently the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a nonunionized hotel, increased the number of rooms housekeepers are required to clean each day from 16 to 24. To compensate, management reduced the tasks the workers must complete in each room. As a result, the hotel could say that workloads were not becoming greater. What housekeepers found, however, was that "stayover" customers often complained to them, instead of management, that certain work was not being completed. Unfulfilled expectations, such as having sheets changed every day, ended up costing workers tips. In a contrasting attitude, managers told the students in interviews that the luxury beds were not a problem.
Master's degree student Marilisa Navarro speaks with me about interviewing the housekeepers, which she did in both Spanish and English. "I found a mix of workers," she says, "some very outspoken, some concerned about the hotel punishing them, and some not willing to talk at all." Navarro recalls that there were Tijuana residents among those she interviewed, and of those living in San Diego, most were on some form of public assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (created by the federal welfare reform law of 1996, which combined the services of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training).
I ask Navarro how she thinks a study of housekeepers by the Manchester Grand Hyatt would turn out. And would the hotel be able to marshal facts backing up its point of view? Navarro tells me that the Grand Hyatt's management refused to be interviewed. "I assume that they would have a different picture [than ours]," she says, "but we were not granted access to any of their information, given their refusal to be interviewed."
Doesn't this mean, I wonder, that results of hotel-industry studies will only reflect their researchers' interests? To professor Esbenshade I bring up the "objectivity" question. "What do you say," I ask, "to those conservatives who believe universities are dominated by leftists? Aren't they likely to see your students' report on San Diego's hotel housekeepers as nothing more than bleeding-heart liberalism? Whatever happened to the quest of sociologists in the past for a 'value free' science?"
Esbenshade replies that sociologists today have become more realistic about pure objectivity. "They recognize that all research comes with certain perspectives or theories about how the world operates," she says. "And many sociologists, myself included, are concerned about the underprivileged. That doesn't mean we can't be objective about the facts. It is incumbent on the researcher to present all the relevant information.
"In my discipline," Esbenshade continues, "there has been a whole history of industrial sociologists who tried to help business use workers more efficiently. And on SDSU's campus, the departments of recreation, parks, and tourism, and hospitality and tourism management, do a lot of studies that benefit the tourism industry. So here there is certainly a mix of perspectives on society. The business department, for instance, is huge."
The perspective of the students I spoke with, Micah Mitrosky and Marilisa Navarro, includes the conviction that the Manchester Grand Hyatt should share the wealth with the workers who keep it going. New picket lines appeared outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt in December. But they're not likely to make a difference. For their part, Mitrosky, Navarro, and their student colleagues can only repeat how Doug Manchester takes advantage of public land and taxpayer funds to line his own pockets. And the students can keep bringing up those luxury beds that so nicely comfort his customers' backs.