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'We felt relief': Hilton housekeepers return to work with new contract

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UNITE HERE! Local 5

Elsa Pinera has been with the Hilton Garden Inn Waikīkī for seven years. First as a housekeeper, and now a housekeeping clerk. As a clerk, she is responsible for assigning housekeeper shifts at her hotel.

But the last two years have been difficult.

"When we reopened, that was November 2020, not everybody came back," she said. "It was only four housekeepers, and then me, and then one manager. That's it."

Over the last two years, visitor arrivals have gone down to zero, and back up to near pre-pandemic levels. Some hotels occasionally saw full occupancy rates during that time.

Despite these increases, some companies were slow to bring employees back to work. One of the major setbacks was the elimination of daily room cleanings.

"If 50% [occupancy], only eight housekeepers. And January, I think, when we get busy, it was even 100% — you still have a lot of on-calls," Pinera said.

The elimination of daily room cleanings prevented housekeepers from returning to full-time status. A majority of workers at the Hilton Garden Inn remained on-call, with no guarantee of work.

And when they had no work, they called Pinera.

"It really hurts my feelings, looking at the on-call people. They're calling me like, 'Do I have a schedule today? I'm worried,'" she recalls. "There was this housekeeper begging for hours because her husband just did an open-heart surgery. And then they were worried because they don't have hour[s], maybe they're going to cut down their medical."

Because rooms could go days without cleaning, that meant those who did get called back to work took longer than usual to tidy up. Pinera estimates another 30 minutes per room.

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Casey Harlow / HPR
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Elsa Pinera works as a housekeeping clerk at the Hilton Garden Inn Waikīkī. She and her coworkers agreed to a new seven year contract with the hotel earlier this month.

With limited staffing and daily guest check-outs and check-ins, Pinera tells HPR the housekeepers either had to pass rooms off to another shift, or work overtime in order to meet the demand.

The return of daily room cleanings was the main issue for the state's largest hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE! Local 5. The union's contract with some of Waikīkī's largest hotels expired in June.

Last month, Local 5 and the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikīkī Beach Resort reached a new two-year agreement. The new contract not only brings back daily room cleanings, but also increases worker wages and contributes to the union's health fund — which was depleted in the last two years.

For Pinera, she and her coworkers agreed to a similar contract with the Hilton Garden Inn. But there's one big difference — it's good for seven years.

"It means a lot having a contract. Especially the daily cleaning, because all the workers are having schedules, already having hours," she tells HPR. "We all have the medical, we don't [have to] worry.

"Having that contract seven years, just like we felt relief."

Their contract went into effect earlier this month, with all employees back at work.

Local 5 is still negotiating with several hotel chains for a new contract.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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