For Xochitl Mendez, a housekeeper who has worked at an MGM hotel in Las Vegas for the past 14 years, cleanliness (or lack thereof) is a safety issue.
“The rooms aren’t cleaned every day, and every day we see guests who are super, super annoyed. They’re angry and they insult us,” Mendez, 55, told Fortune. “Sometimes we don’t want to go into the rooms because the guests are so mad.”
Once, Mendez said, an angry guest yelled at her and threw magazines when she entered the room, shouting, “Why hasn’t this room been cleaned when I’m paying so much money?”
She said she and her colleagues report angry guests immediately, but security either shows up—or doesn’t. For her work, cleaning rooms on the swing shift—between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m.—Mendez makes $21 an hour, and rarely gets tips. The pay hasn’t kept up with the growing costs of food, utilities, and gas, she said.
Alone in the building
The debate over hotel-room cleaning has gotten so intense, one of Nevada’s most powerful unions might strike over it. Last month, members of the Culinary Union, which represents Mendez and 60,000 other mostly Las-Vegas-based housekeepers, laundry attendants, bartenders, and servers, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a work stoppage. Union members have also held pickets in front of MGM and Caesars properties. Housekeepers are asking for panic buttons, minimum staffing levels, and higher pay—and to make required daily housekeeping mandatory in Vegas hotels, according to the union.
Mendez told Fortune that she’s seen people carry guns into the resort, which makes her more fearful of confronting angry guests. Earlier this year, union officials testified to the Nevada legislature that members have been attacked while alone on floors, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. But that wasn’t enough to stop passage of a law that repealed a requirement, passed early in the pandemic, to clean rooms daily. The hotel industry and the Henderson Chamber of Commerce opposed the measure, saying it stifled the economic recovery and that many guests didn’t want it.
Asked about Mendez’s experience, an MGM spokesperson said that “Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our employees and guests, and we take every situation and complaint seriously,” and noted that firearms are banned from all MGM Resorts properties.
One MGM Resorts representative testified this spring that more than 40% of guests declined housekeeping or used a “do not disturb” sign, according to the Review-Journal.
Virginia Valentine, who heads the Nevada Resort Association, told the Review-Journal that the bill wasn’t a cost-saving measure for hotels, and that daily housekeeping would be offered to guests who ask for it.
“If they want daily housekeeping, they’re going to have daily housekeeping,” she told the paper. “You don’t have to have something in state law to bargain for it.”
MGM told Fortune it has “a long history of working with the union on contracts that support employees and their wellbeing” and said the company was “continuing to negotiate a contract that is good for everyone.”
‘Room rates are through the roof’
The hotel industry’s remarkable recovery from the pandemic throws into question whether it needs support.
“Room rates are through the roof; guest visitation is through the roof, and we expect if these companies are doing well, then workers should also share in that prosperity,” Ted Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer, told reporters last week.
Room rates in Las Vegas hit a record of $213 a night on average, according to local station KSNV, a whopping 60% above their 2019 level, with occupancy close to pre-pandemic levels.
Nationwide, hotels’ operating profits have surged, according to figures compiled by Unite Here. And Las Vegas isn’t the only place where cleaning has become political. In Washington, D.C., the city council last year passed a temporary law requiring daily cleaning; hotel workers are hoping the law will be made permanent.
It’s not just a matter of keeping their jobs, housekeepers say: Infrequent cleaning means messier rooms and takes more of a toll on the housekeeper.
Cleaning rooms only at checkout means more time, more cleaning products, and a harder job, said Lucy Biswas, a housekeeper at the Washington Hilton. In the depths of the pandemic, the hotel sometimes staffed as few as six housekeepers to clean a full-occupancy building, rather than the 40 that would work on a typical day pre-pandemic, according to Biswas’ union, Unite Here Local 25.
“When they leave for a room for three days, the trash in the rooms smells, the trash is all over the floor,” Biswas said. “When a family comes in, there’s plenty of sawdust, syrup on top of the desk, or dust, or crumbs… sometimes, we don’t even finish the rooms because they’re so filthy.”
Hilton said it’s adding more frequent housekeeping. “Beginning this fall, guests will enjoy automatic daily housekeeping at all of Hilton’s Luxury, Full Service, Lifestyle and Embassy Suites by Hilton hotels worldwide,” a company spokesperson told Fortune in an email. “Guests at any of Hilton’s brands can share their preferences upon arrival or during their stay and tailor their housekeeping schedule to their individual needs.” However, the company today has about 8% fewer workers globally than it did in 2019, while the number of rooms it owns has grown 14%.
That math doesn’t work, said Pappageorge.
“If companies are setting records on profits but at the same time reducing the amount of jobs through reducing daily room cleaning … or expecting workers to pick up the slack permanently, like they did through the pandemic, that’s not going to fly,” he said.