Our Pain, Their Gain

The hidden costs of profitability in Seattle hotels.

April 2012 - While Seattle’s downtown hotel sector recovers from the recession and faces widely projected growth and profitability, its workforce endures poverty wages and pain and injury from unsustainable management practices. Our Pain, Their Gain reveals how industry practices keep workers in poverty with low wages and unaffordable health benefits requiring public dollars to subsidize their health care costs as well as their food and housing.

“We found that hotel workers, who are mostly people of color and family breadwinners, not only earn wages at poverty level,” said Howard Greenwich, research director for Puget Sound Sage and author of the report, “they endure pain and injury at higher rates than almost any other industry—some that may surprise you, such as construction or coal mining. Meanwhile, industry profits are rapidly growing.”

Economic hardships and hazardous conditions endured by hotel employees are disproportionately borne by workers of color and by immigrants. Pain and injury are disproportionately borne by women, who comprise most of the hotel housekeeping workforce. While earning so little and living paycheck to paycheck, some even qualify for public assistance. Yet, the work is grueling. A typical housekeeper cleans 15 rooms a day, strips over 500 pounds of soiled linen and replaces it with 500 pounds of clean linen, lifting a mattress over 60 times a day.

Pain and injury plague hotel workers at higher rates than coal miners.

“They treat us like machines,” said housekeeper Jian Hua Wu. “I’ve seen people quit because their bodies couldn’t take the work. And it’s not just hard; it’s dangerous. By forcing us to go faster and faster, women are getting hurt regularly.”

Joe McDermott, King County councilmember
 and chair of the King County Board of Public Health, is calling on both elected officials and the private sector to set the region’s tourism and hospitality industries on the right path.

“In this report Sage sets forward principles and a framework for our decisions and we’re going to study these and see if we can’t take the “high road” in hotel and hospitality in the future as this sector is set to rapidly grow,” said McDermott. “A healthy region will mean we are working to sustain our families, invest in our workers and that we’re supporting healthy businesses that are helping us create healthy communities,” he added.