So we stayed Friday and Saturday nights at a hotel. Our friend James flew down to meet us from Seattle and decided it would be fun for all of us to stay together in a room at the Holiday Inn Express. We did have fun, but there was also horror.
Horror at the Holiday Inn, just in time for Halloween? You betchya. There was the kid who got stuck in the elevator, and his panicked screams. There was the television in our room, which replaced the Red Sox game with multiple channels of FoxNews, and the television in the lobby, whose flickering screen showed a painful Game 3 defeat on the eerie, rare call of obstruction. But things really went crazy Sunday morning.
At the end of a better than average continental breakfast, I threw the old “That’s not going in the trash is it?” at the nice woman taking away the huge trays full of scrambled eggs, sausage, gravy, muffins, and pastries. Knowing that most hotels give what’s left of breakfast to the workers at the hotel, I expected that kind of satisfying, non-wasting answer. But no! I hadn’t prepared myself for the worst. The scariest of answers pushed through her lips, warbled through the air, crashed into my inner ear, and sent a signal up the 8th cranial nerve that my brain understood and wished it hadn’t.
“Oh yeah, I have to throw all this out. They don’t let the workers touch it, and we can’t donate it to the homeless shelter a block away.”
Upon immediate, shaking inquiry, I realized management had again produced the canard that there was some sort of liability associated with donating extra food. This is not true! There is only a complete lack of willingness to bother to do anything that is not profitable. I rescued as much of the food as I could carry, with the help of the very friendly worker, on two large trays for the hot food and a bag for the pastries and muffins.
On my way upstairs, the full horror of this place of profit and inhumanity came into clear, ghastly view. One of the workers, Hispanic like all but the front desk staff, entered and without my needing to ask told me what a hard day of work this was. I asked him if they paid him well. He laughed and told me… (wait for it) … (wait for it) …they did not! Shocking.
After placing the comestible bounty in our room, I sought out a housekeeper to inform her that there was food-a-plenty for her and the other workers in room 333. She was glad, and she herself brought up the injustice of delicious medium-quality food being thrown away while sometimes hungry, always underpaid people cleaned rooms and smelled the food without ever knowing what was on offer. She didn’t forget to mention that we live in a world where, “hay gente que no tiene para comer.” There are people who don’t have anything to eat.
I sat in the hallway to read while Jesse, Jess, and James slept in the room, but I was feeling shaken by the obviousness, stupidity, and absurdity of the wastefulness, so I got into more detailed conversation with the housekeepers. I learned some things. Most of them are single mothers and immigrants from Mexico. They are paid $8.45/hour, in which time they are expected to clean three rooms. The average nightly rate in each of those rooms? $210, though they charge up to $400/night when they can get away with it. So the housekeepers are paid 1.3% of the revenue from the rooms they clean. (Also, it seems the average tip for hotel housekeepers in the U.S. is less than $1.) A living wage for an adult with one child in San Diego County is $22.83/hour.
Now, obviously, the hotel company has other expenses beyond housekeepers’ wages, but they did make $989 million in profits in 2012, with $2.945 billion in revenue. That’s 34% of revenue as profits. If that ratio holds true at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown San Diego, that’s $71 of profit per room. That’s right, the company’s owners make $71 for every $2.82 they pay the housekeepers who actually do the work. Which means they could increase the wages they pay the housekeepers by $6/hour (to the still insufficient but WAY better $14.45) by reducing their profit per room to $69.
[Jesse: Of course, the owners are surely working 25 times as hard as the entire housekeeping staff combined, and thus deserve so much more. (<—sarcasm)]
Amazingly, their profit per room at this particular Holiday Inn Express is probably even greater. $210 per night is much more than most Holiday Inns, and there’s a Motel 6 a couple blocks away that manages to get by charging only $88/night. So either the Holiday Inn has WAY bigger profit margins, or its use of resources is so inefficient that their expenses are more than twice as great per room as the Motel 6. [Jesse: Maybe when they’re done throwing away pounds and pounds of food they burn all the bedsheets! (<—seriously)] And we know that high wages aren’t driving up their expenses. Actually, they couldn’t if they tried. According to the math here, they could pay the housekeepers $60/hour and still make $54 of profit per room!
One last way to think about the huge gap between corporate profits and worker wages here is this. If the hotel raised the nightly rate on the rooms by $10, to $220, and gave that raise entirely to the housekeepers, their wages would go up to a life-changing $38.45/hour. Yeah.
But the seeds of change are present. The workers are not content. They have not been tricked into thinking their poverty wages are fair. The middle class of this country, with their monthly student loan payments and giant mortgages, might have been convinced that our economic system distributes wealth fairly, that the wealthy have earned their power, whatever. And maybe that’s why the elites in Washington only ever mention the middle class while failing to acknowledge that a lower class must exist for there to be a middle. But tens of millions of workers have to choose between paying the rent and buying actually healthy food, between paying off medical bills and getting their kids clothes that actually fit, or between making enough to live and actually having the time to live. And these workers, who don’t make a living wage, or work three jobs to scrape by, or don’t have a job at all, aren’t hoodwinked.
They know the system is painfully rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful. This is especially true of those immigrants who didn’t grow up with the constant pro-capitalist, pro-wealthy propaganda of the United States. Their ability to fight back is limited by their immigration status and by the presence of a large unemployed and underemployed labor force desperate for work, but we can fix that. The millions and millions of us who care about each other, about social and economic justice, can change those factors. We can make this a society where every job pays a living wage and everyone willing and able to work has a job.
The market’s not going to do it for us. We have to organize for real progressive change. And I think we have to change the way we think about our responsibilities to each other and the morality of the systems we’re a part of. What if exploiting workers was as socially unacceptable as mugging? What if we felt a responsibility to call people out on participation in these systems (as owners, managers, customers) the way we’d say, “Hey, that’s not cool,” to a friend who pockets a candy bar at the supermarket register? And then we’ve got to act according to those conclusions and convictions ourselves. Maybe, if we’re willing to throw $210, or $88, at a corporation for a place to stay for a night, then that’s a sign that we also have enough to leave a $50 tip for someone who really needs it. Or maybe (especially in a world with CouchSurfing) we shouldn’t stay at Holiday Inns that pay their workers $3 for work that makes the company 25 times that amount.
Maybe someday the scariest thing about Halloween in San Diego will be the guy in Pacific Beach dressed like a bush who jumps out from a tree to scare the people walking from bar to bar.
– Adam (w/ Jesse)
from Chula Vista, California