How the Design of Hotel Rooms Makes Housekeepers Invisible

It’s easy to feel comfortable in a space that magically cleans itself.

Alistair Berg / Rob Melnychuk / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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.”

Making housekeepers’ work invisible has been an objective of the hotel industry since its beginnings in the 19th century. In 1900, Mary Bresnan, a housekeeping manager, published The Practical Hotel Housekeeper, a book of essays about how to manage what Bresnan refers to, in the parlance of the time, as “chambermaids.” Bresnan’s book contains essays that were previously published in Hotel Monthly, an important trade magazine from the period, and in The Practical Hotel Housekeeper she offers her opinion on everything from the proper way to inventory linens to the importance of policing religious and moral virtue in the workplace—even which ethnic backgrounds she deemed best suited to which positions. (Specifically, she warned of immigrants from Europe, where “the art
of fine washing and ironing is confined to a few women who have been
trained to do this work from girlhood.”) To Bresnan, guest satisfaction was paramount, and controlling how chambermaids behave with paying customers was a source of vexing concern.

Bresnan was of the firm belief that chambermaids should remain inconspicuous, and she was aware that striking a balance between serving guests and completing work in a timely fashion turns out to require some diplomacy. “When there are three or more ladies on one girl’s division and all want their rooms done at once,” Bresnan advises, “the maid has to use tact in order not to give offense to any one of them.” She then recommends that the chambermaid explain to one guest that another might be entertaining “visitors,” thus stressing the importance of cleaning the room before said visitors’ arrival.  Elsewhere Bresnan notes that the guest who has a suite should certainly allow the guest who only has “one room” to have her space cleaned first, since any woman with propriety would not “compel any lady to sit in a [single] room with the work undone.” Following this guidance, the chambermaid could then presumably complete her work, make all the hotel guests happy, and mitigate intrusiveness.

Bresnan’s demands and watchful eye were the harbinger of a new breed of early-20th-century hotelier who codified the idea of attentive, inconspicuous service and elevated the art of managing hotel workers’ visibility through the regulation of emotions. E. M. Statler, with his eponymous hotels, changed the prevailing business model by creating some of the first hotel properties in the United States with more than 100 rooms, in such locales as Buffalo (1907), Cleveland (1912), and St. Louis (1917). Statler, who devised one of the earliest examples of a hotel chain, emphasized service, both in terms of his standardized guest rooms (which included private bathrooms—a first) and workers’ interactions with guests, which had to abide by the inviolable Statler Service Code. This compendium of internal rules focused on the idea that the guest is always right—a variation of “the customer is always right,” a mantra that many in the service industry began to do business by during the early 20th century. To make good on that assertion, the hotelier declared that it was the responsibility of his employees to manage guests with emotional savvy and a disposition that fostered empathy while maintaining distance.

Statler designed his rooms to facilitate his call to service while rendering employee labor invisible or even removing workers, when possible, from customers’ experiences. The Servidor, for instance, was a modified door in guest rooms that could be found in Statler’s 2,200-room Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, which opened to the public in 1919. The Servidor was a cabinet in the door’s central panel that allowed guests to place items inside a hidden cubby from within the room, and could be opened by hotel employees from the outside hallway without having to interfere with the guest’s stay. This ingenious design also enabled a new and growing revenue stream—now clothes could be pressed and shoes could be shined in-house with ease and for a fee. The device allowed the customer to still be “right” without having to navigate an exchange (or the awkward expectation of a tip) with an individual worker.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, bigger and more modern hotel chains proceeded to enact their own versions of Statler’s Code, as the interest in regimenting labor and standardizing design intensified with the development of larger brands, such as Hilton, which purchased Statler Hotels in 1954. As Annabel Jane Wharton, a professor of art history at Duke University, detailed in her 2001 book Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture, many mid-century hoteliers mandated fast room turnover and an atmosphere of calming grandeur, relying on low-skilled workers in order to keep costs down.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts, founded in 1969 and acquired in 2016 by Marriott International, epitomizes the industry’s continued commitment to hiding labor. An immense global entity that manages and owns such brands as Sheraton and St. Regis, and has over 175,000 employees, Starwood has become adept at meeting its customers’ tacit expectations, especially when it comes to managing the workforce. Today, one initiative found at many Starwood properties around the world that has an enormous impact on its workers (unbeknownst to most guests) is a program called Make a Green Choice. Starwood frames this as a “guest-facing sustainability program,” allowing customers to assuage anxieties about their carbon footprints by opting out of housekeeping for up to three nights in exchange for a limited number of Starpoints, which can be used for free hotel stays, or a $5 food voucher for each day that a guest waives housekeeping services.

In 2011, I spoke with numerous Starwood housekeepers in Hawaii, where the hotel workers’ union successfully bargained to end the Make a Green Choice program earlier that year. These conversations indicated that this ostensibly progressive initiative had placed an onerous burden on staff. Devising a work schedule that had employees cleaning contiguous rooms became impossible with so many guests selecting the “green” option. This meant that a housekeeper who used to push her cart (carts can weigh a few hundred pounds, with ones that are fully loaded sometimes exceeding 500 pounds) down a single hallway to clean 15 adjacent rooms now had to move the cumbersome apparatus from floor to floor—or even from building to building, in the case of one hotel on the island of Kauai—in order to meet her daily quota of rooms. Moreover, housekeepers now had to clean sometimes-filthy rooms that had not been maintained by housekeeping for several days. Most significantly, with fewer hours of work per week, they lost pay in the wake of so many guests electing to Make a Green Choice.

Marriott, for its part, continues to embrace the program. The company said in a statement when asked about the program and these housekeepers’ experiences, “Starwood’s ‘Make A Green Choice’ program has been highly successful in achieving the goals of our guests and in reducing use of energy and natural resources and it continues globally.”

Given that making housekeepers’ activities discreet could help them do their jobs more efficiently, is it possible this is an ideal arrangement? “Hidden, or cloaked, aspects of service ... are the key ones to really creating that ‘wow’ moment for guests,” says Leslie Lefkowitz, a public-relations consultant who specializes in luxury hospitality. Lefkowitz says that in her experience, many of the men and women who work in hotels do not mind that their labor is hidden, because they have a desire to provide customers with good service.

Even though the housekeepers I interviewed were indeed committed
to ensuring guests’ satisfaction, my conversations with them suggest they want to
have a say in the process that determines how the rooms they work in
are designed and the ways in which their labor is planned and managed. As Lydia Agustin, one housekeeper I interviewed while doing research in Hawaii, noted, “Housekeepers [are] the backbone of the hotel industry”—they provide a crucial element of service that can make guests repeat customers. In Hawaii, the workers who protested the Make a Green Choice initiative managed to improve their work environment. Another way of making sure housekeepers are heard more consistently is through a more collaborative process in which those who have to live with the effects of design decisions have more of a say in the actual design phase. The industry standard now is not to listen to housekeepers during these deliberations.

The housekeepers in Hawaii did not have a hand in shaping the Make a Green Choice initiative, which makes it not altogether surprising that a supposedly progressive program led to a burdensome work environment. That this outcome came about without guests being aware of it is a testament to the industry’s efforts to render its employees invisible. In some ways, though, their invisibility is also a product of how pop culture depicts service workers. For years, movies, books, and TV shows have romanticized working-class men and women, but realistic depictions of labor are actually quite rare.

Consider the 2002 film Maid in Manhattan, which tells the story of a Latina housekeeper named Marisa Ventura (played by Jennifer Lopez) who struggles to make ends meet in New York. The movie highlights Ventura’s experience as a single mother while working as a housekeeper at the luxurious (and fictional) Beresford Hotel. In a twist on the Cinderella story, a wealthy guest and senatorial candidate played by Ralph Fiennes rescues Ventura from her humble circumstances, sweeping her off her feet as she leaves her maid’s uniform behind to become an enlightened hotel manager.

But making Ventura’s love life the focus of the film only furthers the cultural invisibility of the hotel housekeeper’s actual labor. Yes, there are a few scenes where viewers witness Ventura briefly working—making a bed or cleaning a bathroom—but these vignettes quickly devolve into setups that allow the film’s romantic plot to move forward. Work is present, but only as a means of solidifying Ventura’s budding romance.

Maid in Manhattan even portrays some of the ways in which design reinforces the invisibility of labor, through humorous scenes in the “back of the house,” where service is staged and organized within hotels. In one of the early scenes of the film, the imperious director of housekeeping informs her assembled staff that a “A Beresford maid is expedient. A Beresford maid is thorough. A Beresford maid serves with a smile. And, above all, a Beresford maid strives to be invisible.” The camera then focuses on two signs written in cursive. One declares, “Strive to be Invisible,” while the other reads, “Strive to Serve.” A bemused housekeeper coyly responds to the boss’s decree, “Maybe we can disappear one day altogether.” The line is intended as a quip, a clever takedown of the typical corporate aphorisms found in such service areas, yet the exchange hints at the genuine concerns that can arise from hotel staff.

To its credit, Maid in Manhattan does depict some of the gender and racial politics that have long defined hotel work. In the United States, the majority of hotel housekeepers are African American, Asian, or Latina women. In most cities, it is rare to see a white woman pushing a housekeeping cart, and it is nearly impossible to find a man engaged in this type of work. The salaries such hard-working women make are often quite low. As of 2015, the median annual salary for hotel housekeepers was just under $21,000, which is very close to the poverty line for a family of three. Portraying the gulf between the white managers of the Beresford and the women of color who clean the hotel’s rooms, Maid in Manhattan captures an important reality of the contemporary hotel industry in the United States.

However, the movie offers few hints of the disadvantages that women of color must contend with industry-wide regarding pay, job security, and safety. Viewers track Ventura’s rise as she unrealistically breaks class, race, and gender boundaries with ease; she ascends the corporate ladder, headed far above her initial station as a guest-room attendant. It’s a departure from the limited options that women like her tend to have in the real world. Ventura’s ability to rise above bed-making passes for entertainment, but in an industry that has long promoted labor’s invisibility, such a dramatic change in circumstances is just the latest in a long line of appealing illusions.

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