On June 25, workers at Boston’s Wyndham Beacon Hill took to the streets to protest unsafe working conditions, the culmination of an escalating fight over biohazards at the hotel. They charge that they’re routinely exposed to medical waste that endangers them, while the hotel insists this is not the case. The fight over working conditions at the Wyndham highlights the myriad dangers hotel workers say they face on the job — some of which could be seriously detrimental to their health.
The hotel is located in the city’s West End district, a short walk from the historic city’s downtown and in the heart of Boston’s cluster of famous medical research and treatment facilities. That proximity is one of the hotel’s advertising points, as it invites guests to stay while they or family members are seeking treatment and recovering from medical procedures, even offering them a discount. It’s also the very thing that employees say may be endangering them. Workers filed an OSHA complaint in May alleging that the hotel exposes them to biohazards on a daily basis with inadequate protective equipment and an utter lack of protocols for handling such materials.
Workers report abysmal conditions that expose them to used sharps and other medical waste along with urine, vomit, blood and feces. The alleged ongoing problem and lack of response from hotel management led the non-union workers to begin organizing around the issue in 2014, reaching out to UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents hotel and other service workers, for assistance. While workers say they are considering unionization in the long term, their priority in the short term was getting safe working conditions and justice in the workplace.
Staffers at Local 26 were horrified by what workers told them. “In 30 years of dealing with the hotel industry,” President Brian Lang of Local 26 told In These Times, “I have never heard of such atrocious conditions as have been described by the workers who work there.”
The work environment reported was nightmarish. Workers say they were handling bloody sheets with bare hands and disposing of sharps by dropping them in plastic bottles and throwing them away. A union report on the hotel claims that workers also had to clean rooms so soaked in blood that the carpets “squished” and eat food from fridges that also held medical samples from guests.
Local 26 collaborated with the workers to put together the OSHA complaint, triggering May’s investigation, and it also conducted its own survey on working conditions at the hotel. Workers reported systemic health and safety violations throughout the hotel, noting that they had inadequate training, insufficient protection equipment and no formal protocol for handling biowaste.
These are significant issues for the staff and guests at any hotel, but particular problems in a facility that advertises to patients. People vulnerable to infection after surgery or medical treatments like chemotherapy are especially at risk of secondary infections, and rooms that can’t be cleaned properly are a potential breeding ground for bacteria and other organisms. (Multiple requests for comment from Wyndham went unsanswered.)
In June, after city representatives realized the extent of the problems at the Wyndham, they called a meeting to address the issue of health and safety at Boston’s hotels. Strikers coordinated their efforts with the meeting so they could protest to raise awareness on the streets before testifying about their working conditions, demonstrating the alleged problems at the Wyndham alongside nursing professionals and other experts. Their testimony was chilling, as highlighted by a conversation with José Berciano, a houseman employed with the hotel for 18 years and one of the key organizers involved in the effort to clean up conditions at the Wyndham who spoke to In These Times through a translator.
“We didn’t have enough gloves, we didn’t have enough protection, we didn’t have enough equipment to clean up mattresses with blood and other exposures,” he says. “We would tell our bosses that we needed them to buy things and they never bought them. They treated us like animals.”
He reported finding a needle in a waste receptacle and disposing of it in a bottle, a moment that proved to be a turning point for him as he organized Wyndham workers to pressure the hotel into action. “After that you feel afraid, because you don’t know what you’ve been exposed to by that needle. You have a family, you have children, you don’t know what kind of sickness or disease you’re bringing back to your family.”
When asked if he’d ever sustained a needlestick injury, he said “no — but some of my coworkers have.” He described the hotel’s nonchalant response to such incidents, saying that while the Wyndham did send workers to nearby Massachusetts General for evaluation and treatment and made some minor policy changes, the hotel still drags its heels on stocking and resupplying protective equipment — even after the OSHA complaint.
One of the most frustrating things about the hazardous situation at the Wyndham, the union says, is how easily it can be prevented. Lang noted that other hotels in Boston serve patients and their families — an inevitable consequence of operating in a city with a very high concentration of medical facilities — and that they have effective protocols in place for handling medical waste.
“I am aware of other hotels in Boston who, similar to the Wyndham, have patients who have been discharged or are still being treated at hospitals,” Lang says. “These hotels have very clear protocols, proper equipment, and in one of them the room attendants have biohazard boxes and tongs, and if they come across something like a needle they put it in the boxes and bring those to housekeeping for disposal.”
Such hotels rely on standards developed by public health organizations and reflecting similar policies to those seen in hospitals. They’re required to, as OSHA’s guidelines on medical waste apply to both hospitals and hotels, and cleaning workers in both settings need adequate protections for dealing with potentially infectious material. At the Wyndham as at Mass General next door, workers need gloves, masks, and other protective gear — and at the Wyndham, workers charge that this equipment often wasn’t provided despite the fact that other Boston-area hotels have successfully implemented biowaste safety programs.
With the OSHA investigation ongoing, the full extent of safety issues at the hotel is difficult to calculate, though Local 26’s survey provides some information about the conditions workers say they are experiencing at the Wyndham. Boston’s other hotels also provide a clear and workable model for implementing a biohazard protocol for training workers, disposing of waste consistently and providing protective gear. OSHA’s findings may include a mandate to address repeated violations, in which case the Wyndham could turn directly to those facilities for advice on establishing an effective protocol, as could workers looking for building blocks to create their own biohazard policy to bring to hotel management.
Lang, noting that the union was acting in a supportive role for the workers and that they were doing the heavy lifting themselves, says, “I think that what’s really striking to me — besides the fact that I’ve never seen conditions, or never heard of conditions, at least in the Boston hotel market, as bad as this — is the courage, the determination, the smart approach that the workers at the Wyndham are taking. It’s really exemplary, and in many ways very inspiring.
OSHA hasn’t issued a final ruling in its investigation, but the Wyndham is facing considerable pressure to clean up its act even without a federal mandate. The strategy of taking the fight to multiple venues may mean justice for the hotel’s workers and a shift in Boston’s municipal policies regarding health and safety at hotels, which would be a huge victory for workers across the city.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the union has not alleged that guests of the Wyndham are at risk of exposure to medical waste.