Margie Garay, a former director of housekeeping at New York City’s Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street, extolls the virtues of turndown service, the nightly ritual of a second visit from housekeeping that’s only an amenity at the most luxurious of properties. At the Four Seasons, Garay told me for a book I was researching, “You come in after dinner, after the show, after the meeting, and your room light is dimmed, your drapes are drawn closed, your music is on classical, your turndown mat is on the floor, your slippers are placed. That’s an experience.” As Garay appreciates, guests at high-end hotels luxuriate in the seamless, sanitary, and agreeable experience that the hospitality industry provides.
To guests, it all appears effortless. Most seldom consider the ceaseless work it takes to maintain such opulent spaces, and this is by design. As Rachel Sherman, a sociologist at the New School, notes in her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, “Turndown service is an especially striking display of labor. Literally folding the corner of the bedding down, of course, serves no useful purpose; the gesture indicates, rather, that an invisible hand has been at work.”
Orchestrating this fiction of magical maintenance, though, can sometimes place a worrisome burden on hotel housekeepers. Designing luxury spaces without regard to maintenance can lead to high levels of physical injury among hotel housekeepers. One study of more than 900 Las Vegas housekeepers found that the “prevalence of severe bodily pain was 47 percent in general, 43 percent for neck, 59 percent for upper back, and 63 percent for low back pain.” Design decisions related to decor and equipment are often the culprits behind such suffering. These Las Vegas guest-room attendants, as well as housekeepers I interviewed in Chicago and Hawaii, cited heavy carts and vacuum cleaners as common causes of injury. Moreover, the repeated stress of specific movements, such as lifting heavy mattresses over and over again to get a perfect bottom-sheet tuck, can be a problem. As Ann Small-Gonzales, a housekeeper in Chicago, told me, “The bed is so close to the wall, in order to get that tuck [of the lower sheet] is uncomfortable. I think that’s how a lot of people might be getting hurt.”