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What’s the price of an uncleaned hotel room?

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When Alex Diaz was furloughed last March, along with most of his colleagues, he did not expect to be back anytime soon.

“The feeling walking out the door that day was that this was going to be pretty drastic,” said Diaz, who had worked as a convention banquet bartender for the Red Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for 15 years.

But he thought that when he did return to work, he’d retain the seniority benefits he’d acquired, which would soon guarantee him a full-time job with health insurance.

Instead, this spring, he found himself interviewing for his old position and was only rehired after a state law went into effect in July requiring employers to give preference to furloughed staff in filling open positions, but he lost his seniority benefits.

The labor shortage in the hospitality industry has been widely reported, as have the lengths to which hotel owners are going to hire new employees, including offering higher wages, cash bonuses and free hotel rooms.

But at the same time, nearly half of the more than 1 million jobs cut in the lodging industry during the pandemic have yet to be recovered, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the recovery has been uneven, with resort markets bouncing back more quickly than cities, which rely on business travel and large conventions or conferences that have not yet returned.

Now, some hotels say they want to make permanent changes that were instituted during the pandemic, like offering daily housecleaning only upon request and adding options like mobile or contactless check-in. Guests, they say, don’t miss the old ways, and the changes would let them reduce costs.

Michelle Millar, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management who studies sustainability and corporate responsibility in the lodging industry, said that there had already been a push toward technology-enabled services, but that “the pandemic exacerbated it.”

“It makes, in some ways, operations more efficient,” she said, “but at what cost?”

Some hotels have said that they are following the lead of consumers, many of whom were in favor of eliminating daily housekeeping during the pandemic, according to a survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association last August. Hilton announced in July that it would make daily housekeeping optional for most of its U.S. hotels, with the exception of its luxury brands like Waldorf Astoria and Conrad. And Julie Rollend, Marriott’s director of public relations, said that company was leaving it up to guests to “elect their preferred cadence of housekeeping services during their stay.”

“Throughout the pandemic, we discovered guests enjoyed the flexibility of on-demand housekeeping services and have varying levels of comfort with someone entering their rooms after they have checked in,” Meg Ryan, Hilton’s senior director of corporate affairs, said in an email. She added that the hotel still offers room cleaning upon request, and that “the single biggest challenge for the industry right now is the availability of labor.”

Christopher Anderson, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, said that post-pandemic there is “more acceptance of reduced in-stay attention” among consumers, and that he could see an a la carte model similar to that adopted by many airlines becoming more popular, in which guests can choose the services for which they are willing to pay.

“I think as we reduce the actual labor, then firms can operationally deliver upon what they can deliver via technology, and then it now becomes a win-win,” Anderson said. “Consumers get more of what they want as far as selection, and then if costs are reduced and prices are adjusted accordingly, again, that’s a further win.”

But some employees say they would be the losers. A recent report by UNITE HERE, a hotel workers union, found that eliminating daily housekeeping as the industry standard would cost at least 180,000 jobs, held overwhelmingly by women of color, and $4.8 billion in lost wages.

Nuris Deras Merlos, a 36-year-old housekeeper at Hilton Seattle, had only been with the company for a couple of months when she was furloughed as a result of the pandemic last year. Her husband, who paints houses, also saw his business decrease as the coronavirus circulated.

“The past year was difficult because I had panic attacks, anxiety attacks and landed in the emergency room twice,” she said in a Spanish-language interview this month.

Now she is back at work in an on-call capacity, working one or two days a week or, some weeks, not at all. Work that was in the past divided among multiple housekeepers now falls solely on her, she said. “I had to do it myself because they said they were short-staffed,” she said, “but why don’t they call us if they’re short staffed? Why aren’t we working?”

Ryan, the Hilton spokesperson, said that staffing levels are “assessed hotel by hotel and are informed by market demand, local business environments, as well as recommendations from government and health authorities.”

Stonebridge Cos., the hospitality firm that manages Hilton Seattle, which is franchised, said that “the pandemic has dictated a number of changes within our service model, with in-room daily cleaning becoming an opt-in service, in most cases.”

Julie Gabot, a 62-year-old housekeeper in Hawaii, said her work has become more grueling than it was in the past. She has worked at Sheraton Waikiki for nearly 30 years, and her seniority meant she was guaranteed a job when the hotel started taking back employees.

But rooms that once took her 45 minutes to an hour to clean now take twice as long. Extended stays, which are more common now than before the pandemic, mean that “during checkout time, it’s harder,” said Gabot. Items that would have been cleared out during daily cleanings, like tampons, diapers or sand tracked in from trips to the beach, build up.

“There’s a lot of things to do, and then now we sanitize everything,” Gabot said. “It’s time-consuming now.”

Gabot views eliminating daily housekeeping as a cost-saving measure that will most negatively impact workers, especially those with lower seniority than her, and called the move “greedy.”

Some hotel owners have said the staffing shortage is a result of extended unemployment benefits creating a disincentive for people to return to the workforce.

But Diaz, the Las Vegas hotel worker, said that “couldn’t be further from the truth.” In his case, he made $500 less per week from unemployment than he did from his job, which was largely based on tips.

The median wage for housekeepers in the United States is $12.61 an hour, but Ted Waechter, a spokesperson for Unite Here, the labor union, said that wages for many union housekeepers are “far, far higher,” up to at least $27 per hour. He said many are making hundreds of dollars less per month on unemployment than they would if they were working.

“We absolutely want those jobs,” Diaz said.

And unionized jobs also come with benefits that might outweigh the extended unemployment payments. “For us, it’s very important to have and count on health insurance,” Merlos said. Recalling her panic attacks last year, she said, “Imagine how much I would have had to pay the hospital when I got sick at the beginning of the pandemic” without it.

Merlos is currently covered by the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which extends employer-provided insurance for a limited amount of time. That coverage expires in September, after which she said she would likely have to look for another job, because the few hours she is being given at work don’t qualify her for employer-sponsored health insurance.

Merlos said that, for immigrants, there is also fear associated with taking government help for a prolonged period of time because of former President Donald Trump’s “public charge” policy, which allowed officials to deny people permanent residency if they took or were deemed likely to use public benefits. (The Biden administration said in March that it would stop implementing the regulation.) “What we wanted was to have employment with the same benefits,” Merlos said.

Anderson, of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, said that as business and convention travel resumes, the labor situation will also likely stabilize.

“We’ll see some recovery of those jobs, because now all those rooms have to be cleaned as you go from guest to guest,” he said, adding that business travel tends to be shorter and more frequent. “I think right now is the worst case scenario just because people are tending to have longer stays.”

Cindy Estis Green, CEO of Kalibri Labs, an analytics lab specializing in the hospitality industry, said that length of stay increased by about 15% among individual travelers in 2020. And Airbnb said that long-term bookings of 28 days or more nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2021 compared with 2019, from 14% to 24% of bookings.

Diaz, who started working again in early July, said that though he was hired back at the same rate, losing seniority was a significant blow.

“We did what we were told to do. We stayed home,” he said, but “we weren’t given any backup as far as our jobs.”

Last year, Diaz was forced to sell his house to reduce costs while he relied on unemployment benefits.

“It took me 15 years almost to get to the position I was at and now that’s gone,” he said. “Everyone starts from scratch.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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