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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Dec 23, 2015, 11:55 am

OSHA Finds $12,000 Worth of Citations at Hotel Where Workers Report Dealing with Blood, Needles

BY s.e. smith

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Boston area hotel workers at a protest against what they say are hazardous working conditions. (UNITE HERE)  

Boston is a city of hospitals, hosting some of the finest medical treatment facilities in the world for those seeking specialty care. Outpatients or those newly discharged, along with their families, need somewhere to stay, and that place is often a hotel — increasingly, a “hospital hotel,” one of a growing number of hotel properties that advertise directly to hospital consumers.

For the hospitality industry, such facilities are a boon, with a steady supply of customers to counteract off-season drops in guest numbers. For workers, though, it’s a different story, as hotel employees can encounter hazardous working conditions as a result of coming into contact with sick patients, and the debris they leave behind.

One such facility is the Wyndham Beacon Hill in Boston, which explicitly advertises itself to patients at nearby Mass General, which actually lists the hotel as a recommended accommodation. The hotel is also near Shriner’s Hospital for Children, the Tufts University School of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, among many others.

In May, a worker complaint triggered an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into conditions at the hotel—including, say workers, issues like carpets so soaked in blood that they squelched underfoot, linens soiled in blood and feces and needles abandoned for housekeepers to pick up.

Now, OSHA’s report is out, and it includes $12,000 worth of citations Wyndham will have to address by January 5, 2016. The results reflect an examination spanning May through July of 2015, during investigations that occurred as workers struck on June 25 to raise awareness about the issue for members of the public.

In response to the findings, a press representative for the Wyndham Hotel Group stated, “Providing a healthy and safe environment for our employees and guests is of the utmost importance to us. We are reviewing the proposed citations received from OSHA in its report. Please know we take these matters very seriously and will work with OSHA to reach a resolution.”

OSHA charges the hotel with failing to provide adequate gloves to protect workers from biohazards in the workplace, as well as insufficient training in how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) and failing to isolate contaminated laundry. It’s a striking set of penalties that should be putting other hospital hotels on notice, as well as a sign for the health care industry that something is going very wrong at some of the hotels they’re recommending to patients and family. While Wyndham’s workers started organizing in 2014 and led an effort to demand better working conditions, employees at other hospital hotels aren’t so visible.

Some of that drive to organize, says Aura Berciano-Reyes, a housekeeper from El Salvador who has been working in the facility for 19 years alongside her husband, comes courtesy of the large network of friends and family working across the hotel industry in Boston and elsewhere. In discussions about the conditions at the Wyndham with family members who work at other hotels, she learned that some were represented by UNITE HERE Local 26, a hotel worker’s union invested in the health and safety of workers in the region.

She says the story those workers told was markedly different from the one Wyndham workers experienced, and it made her see that there was an alternative to dangerous working conditions—one reason the frustrated workers asked to sit down with UNITE HERE representatives to learn more about their expertise in the industry.

UNITE HERE doesn’t represent the workers, but it does have considerable experience with hotel safety issues, including models that focus on worker safety and its benefits to employees and guests alike. Seeing the conditions in union hotels made workers want to push for better conditions for themselves through advocacy with management and reports to the federal agencies responsible for protecting their welfare. Targeting OSHA was key, with the goal of compelling the hotel to address the safety issues that workers had complained about to no avail.

Workers claim the hotel isn’t responding quickly enough to their calls to clean up its act, or to the OSHA investigation. Berciano-Reyes says that while the hotel initially started improving access to supplies like gloves as the OSHA investigation proceeded, that story is already starting to change.

In conversation with In These Times, she said housekeepers were sometimes forced to wait up to a week for new gloves to come in, and that the hotel hadn’t provided latex-free gloves for housekeepers with allergies, an issue that came up in the OSHA citation as well. The hotel, she said, shows a video on how to use PPE, but the worker in the video has better equipment than the hotel’s. If she finds a needle in a guest room, she’s supposed to call engineering for help—and while she knows there’s a sharps container in the housekeeping office, she says it’s locked overnight, making it impossible for night shift housekeepers to access it.

OSHA’s findings represent a huge victory for the workers, who took their concerns about fair process to rally around each other and organize a campaign to force their workplace to follow laws such as OSHA’s guidelines on bloodborne pathogens. Even as workers were organizing to address the dangers in their workplace, though, their employers, they claim, were attempting to intimidate them. In an NLRB report filed in May, they said they’d been subjected to coercive actions to pressure them into dropping their campaign, including threats, promises of better pay and benefits, and surveillance. 

For the workers at the Wyndham, there’s a long road ahead when it comes to securing safe working conditions, and their movement will continue to be driven by the housekeepers, housemen and other staff who worked in solidarity with each other to protect their community. For hospital hotels, this could be the start of a new chapter in labor relations. 

s.e. smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.

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