It's too hard, too hard' LMU Students Join Hurting Hotel Workers in 'Day of the Dead Tired' Protest March

November 27th, 2007

November 7, 2007

By R. W. Dellinger

Rosa Balam, a robust-looking woman, stills wears her name tag from the Westin Hotel. But she hasn’t worked as a housekeeper there for 2 1/2 years, and doesn’t expect to ever work anywhere again.

Trying to lift 80 pounds of wet linen, the 40-year-old mother of two boys and a girl severely injured her shoulders, lower back and left hand. She’s had one surgery on her neck and doctors say she needs four more.

“The mattresses are so heavy now that it is a stress to lift them up,” she said, before starting the Oct. 25 five-mile “Day of the Dead Tired” march from Loyola Marymount University in Westchester to the LAX Hilton Hotel on Century Boulevard, where a peaceful protest rally was held. “But we are pressured to clean rooms so fast, we are working under constant stress.

“A houseman is supposed to pick up the linen and trash, and take care of the restrooms in the lobby and meeting rooms. But now we must do all this, too. And this is why I had my accident.”

The pain from her injuries never goes away, even with all the medications she’s taking. One time it became so severe doctors prescribed morphine. Today, she can stand but only walk short distances. The hardest part, however, was – and still is – having a late miscarriage after her mishap. She believes the death of her son was caused by the accident along with the daily stress of her job.

While Balam was working at Westin for 14 years, she struggled to pay up to $400 a month for health insurance. But now she isn’t covered. With her meager disability monthly check, she struggles to keep her 18-year-old child in college, care for her 13- and 11-year-olds, and pay the rent and other bills.

Before getting into a wheelchair to help lead the early afternoon Thursday march with three other wheelchair-bound former housekeepers, she says it’s important people know “what is happening” to employees at some of the most upscale luxury hotels in Los Angeles. She hopes their voices reach the hidden corporate owners and demanding supervisors of the city’s burgeoning hospitality industry.

“Right now they do not really care how much people are suffering,” she pointed out. “They just care about making money. We want the city council and legislature to enforce the laws that will protect workers. And we want to have reduced workloads that limit the number of rooms we have to clean.”

Balam stressed that the current quota of 16 rooms to be taken care of every shift is not only exhausting but unsafe. “I believe that nine rooms per shift is a reasonable amount to expect to be cleaned,” she said. “With less rooms to clean, there will be less pressure on housekeepers and fewer people like me will be hurt on the job.”

Quilt of Pain

The labor pilgrimage began by the flagpoles on the Loyola Marymount University campus in Westchester with only about 75 marchers, but swelled to some 400 by the time the rally started in front of the LAX Hilton. Speakers included Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and Father Perry Leiker, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Hawthorne.

“Today we bring to light the pain and suffering that housekeepers have endured at the luxury hotels of Los Angeles,” Huerta declared. “Housekeepers work very hard to make hotel guests feel safe and comfortable. Yet despite huge profits, the hotels don’t want to give these workers a living wage and the respect they need to sustain and keep their families safe and comfortable.”

Housekeepers carried a 40-by-7-foot “Quilt of Pain and Tears,” which they crafted as a symbol of injuries suffered at work. The workers wrote their names, years in the hotel industry and injuries on color-coded patches: brown for disabled, orange for suffering chronic pain on the job, yellow for taking pain medication, multicolored for job-related surgeries – and black patches signifying work-related fatalities.

Maria Teresa Jimenez, a housekeeper supervisor at the Wilshire Grand Hotel, told The Tidings she’d been expected to clean 15 rooms in four hours on different floors in different parts of the hotel.

Although her shift was from 3 p.m. to midnight, the 42-year-old mother from Montebello sometimes didn’t get off work until three hours after her shift actually ended, staying late to make up beds, vacuum and dust, restock rooms and carry linen, while also helping other workers finish their chores.

“It’s too hard, too hard,” she said, shaking her head.

Last summer Jimenez suffered an on-the-job panic attack and was taken by paramedics to a nearby hospital. Then in August, while lifting a super-thick mattress, she felt both her back and knee give way. Since then, she’s been on disability and under the care of three doctors.

“Too much pressure for me,” she explained through an interpreter, adding, “We are here to talk about this situation, because it not only happened to me – this happens to all the housekeepers.”

LMU Supporters

Blake Saunders, a Loyola Marymount University junior from Glendale, estimated that about 40 of his fellow students were making the five-mile trek from LMU to the LAX Hilton Hotel, including a dozen like himself from MAGIS (Men Acting Generally in Service), an all-male on-campus outreach program.

“We’re here to help the workers of the Century Boulevard corridor to get a living wage, health benefits and have better conditions in the workplace,” the 20-year-old psychology major said. “We’re hoping that we’re raising community awareness and really exposing what’s been going on at the hotels.”

Another junior, Amy Rios from the San Gabriel Valley, agreed. She belongs to an all-female service organization on campus called Marian and said she was trying to get involved more in social justice issues.

“Honestly, I knew very little about fair wages,” the 20-year-old history major admitted. “So this is just spreading the word because every little bit counts. I really do think one person can change the world. And there’s 40 of us from LMU all working together and attempting to change one thing. So that’s amazing.”

After a moment, Rios said, “It’s an injustice to say, ‘Come visit us in L.A.,’ when we’re not treating the minorities who work in these luxury hotels correctly.”

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