Both the Hilton Boston Downtown and the Omni Parker House are high-quality hotels popular with tourists and business travelers who want to be in the center of the city. You can trust that the beds at both hotels are top-notch. But there is a big pay gap when it comes to the room attendants who make those beds.
Geraldina Teixeira, 34, has cleaned rooms in the nonunion Hilton in the financial district for about five years. She says she earns $12.64 an hour. That’s short money. She can’t afford the company’s health-insurance plan — or much of anything else — after paying $1,200 a month for her Roxbury apartment. The taxpayers get to make up the difference in the form of food stamps, subsidized health insurance, and heating assistance for Teixeira and her two kids, ages 6 and 13.
Unite Here Local 26, which represents the Boston area’s unionized hospitality workers, is trying to organize Teixeira’s workplace. And the workers seem interested, based on the 92 percent who signed a petition last winter requesting a “fair process” to decide on unionization. So far, the hotel has rejected the union’s request to be recognized if a simple majority of workers sign its authorization card.
This is a citywide economic issue. Working as a room attendant will never be the easiest path into the middle class. But the housekeeping cart rolls more smoothly in that direction at the Omni Parker House, where room attendants earn the Local 26 wage of $16.98 per hour and pay just $12 a week for family health coverage, not to mention the company’s contributions for its workers’ pensions, training, education, and housing.
Omni Parker House employee Constantina Cruz has roots in Cape Verde and two children, just like Teixeira. But Cruz, who started out as a room attendant at the Omni 15 years ago, has parlayed her union affiliation into progressively better jobs at the hotel. About six years ago, she trained to be a banquet server with the help of the union. Now Cruz says she earns $80,000 a year, about double what she made as a room attendant.
Along the way, Cruz bought a rental property and a single-family home in Dorchester. Her daughters attended competitive exam schools in Boston and are now in college. Cruz, 41, is obviously a go-getter. But she credits a lot of her success to Local 26 and her managers at the Omni Parker House.
“They let me spread my wings,’’ she said. “It’s the American dream. I think I’m living it.’’
That’s the kind of attitude that can brighten up an urban neighborhood — literally so in the case of Cruz, who was planting flowers Wednesday in her garden and that of an infirm neighbor. Civic duty is a common sensibility among Local 26 workers, who often sprout up at crime watch meetings and other neighborhood organizations across the city.
Traditionally, nonunion hotels have paid higher wages and provided good opportunities for advancement as a way to discourage unionization, according to David Sherwyn, professor of law at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. But that trend seems to be changing in Boston along with the management structures of hotels, which now commonly include franchises, management contracts, and real estate investment trusts. The Hilton Boston Downtown, for example, isn’t operated by Hilton Worldwide, according to a company spokesman. Instead, it falls under the corporate umbrella of LXR Luxury Resorts, a portfolio of independent properties.
Teixeira manages to clean 12 rooms in a day. But executives at LXR and Hilton Boston Downtown couldn’t manage to call a reporter and weigh in with their side of the story in twice the allotted time.
You could go batty trying to figure out the operating relationships in today’s hospitality industry. But it’s easy to figure out which hotels in Boston provide both comfort for guests and a path to the middle class for workers. They’re listed on Local 26’s website and represent about half of the hotels in Boston.
That’s something to think about the next time you’re planning a hotel function — or deciding where a quiet conscience will give you a good night’s rest.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.