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OSHA opens new inquiry at Beacon Hill hotel

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Juan Carlos Espinal is an experienced housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill, but he is afraid to empty the garbage. On the night shift, he scans the wastebaskets for the glint of a hypodermic needle. And if he finds one, as he did recently, often there is no safe place for him to throw it away.

"When you're cleaning, you never know what's in that garbage can," the 29-year-old father of two said recently in Spanish. "This is the problem."

These and other concerns prompted a federal agency to open a new investigation into the Wyndham less than a year after the agency fined the hotel for failing to protect the housekeepers from used needles, blood, vomit, and other biohazards.

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The hotel is steps from Massachusetts General Hospital and other medical facilities and offers patients a discount to stay there. But the largely immigrant housekeeping staff says the hotel made few improvements since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the hotel $12,000 in November.

OSHA fined the Wyndham for failing to protect the housekeeping staff from biohazards and "physical hazards such as lacerations and puncture wounds from contact with used needles" and other sharp devices. The agency reduced the penalty to $6,000 after the hotel agreed to address the concerns.

But in August, the housekeeping staff sent another letter to OSHA saying the hotel was not consistently providing durable gloves in the correct sizes so that workers could clean rooms or gather contaminated linens. And overnight workers like Espinal had no access to special containers to safely dispose of used needles.

OSHA does not comment on pending investigations but agency spokesman Ted Fitzgeraldconfirmed that a new inspection is ongoing.

Workers say gloves are critical to their health on the job, protecting them from powerful cleaning chemicals or bloodstained sheets. If they do not have the proper size gloves, some said they avoid certain tasks or rinse their old gloves with rubbing alcohol and reuse them.

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Since March, they said, at least nine staff members have worked without the proper gloves. Some have used flimsy gloves to clean rooms; others have simply gone without them.

"I'm a mother with three children. If I get sick, who is going to bring bread to my home?" said Aura Berciano, a 42-year-old who fled violence in El Salvador and has worked at the hotel for 20 years, before Wyndham purchased it a few years ago. Her husband, Jose, also cleans there.

Between them, they have cleaned rooms hundreds of times over, and said they have encountered horrific scenes. Jose said he once found a room filled with so much blood that it squished underneath his feet.

More recently, Aura said, she discovered that a colostomy bag had leaked all over a hotel room. She cleaned it up.

General Manager Tom Chmura declined to be interviewed through a spokeswoman, but the hotel issued a statement saying the OSHA investigators visited several weeks ago. The statement said all workers have access to proper equipment and supplies and are encouraged to report concerns.

"The safety and well-being of our associates and guests is paramount and measures are put in place to provide a safe and comfortable working environment," said the statement from the Wyndham Hotel Group. "We fully cooperated with the inspectors' inquiries. We'll work closely with them should they have any further questions or need any additional information."

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Last year, the hotel manager cast doubt on the workers' claims after a labor union, Unite Here Local 26, issued a critical report about the working conditions there. The hospitality workers' union is trying to organize the Wyndham staff.

In May 2015, Chmura denied that housekeepers were working in unsafe conditions. "I think they have to be taken within the context of who's making the allegations," he said.

Six months later OSHA fined the hotel.

Housekeepers say they sought help from the union after managers ignored their concerns.

Most of the 32-member housekeeping staff are immigrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and other countries, and workers pointed out that until the safety concerns surfaced, they had little to bind them together. Many did not even speak the same language.

And many simply accepted the conditions, worried about losing their jobs.

Until OSHA investigated, for instance, Angela Lemus cleaned for years using latex gloves, even though a severe latex allergy left her hands bloody. After the investigators fined the Wyndham, the hotel provided latex-free gloves, but not in her size.

Now she slips her small hands into the large gloves and wipes fluids carefully to prevent them from leaking onto her hands.

"It's so dangerous," said Lemus, a 34-year-old mother from El Salvador.

She said she did not complain to hotel management about the gloves, because she did not believe they would fix the problem — a concern union officials echoed as well.

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"These are incredibly brave people," said Kelly McGuire, an organizer for Local 26. "They want to feel safe at work and they don't trust the company to do anything about it."

Some housekeepers are still uncertain about whether they want to join a union.

But Espinal, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said the experience has taught him about federal laws and regulations that he never learned growing up in New York. He said he dropped out of school at age 11 to work in his uncle's bodega. Nobody ever intervened to bring him back to school, so he ended up lacking confidence in his English and unsure of his rights in America.

Now he is considering going back to school for his general equivalency diploma.

"I was afraid," said Espinal. "But not anymore. I know my rights now. I know what I'm doing."


Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti