New report criticizes treatment of hotel workers

MN 2020 staff and hotel workers discuss findings of a new report on the state's hotel industry. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

MN 2020, a nonpartisan progressive think tank, has released a report highly critical of the state’s hotel industry and urged hotel owners to increase wages and improve working conditions for its employees.

With Target Field as a backdrop, MN 2020 executive director Steve Fletcher and research fellow Lucas Franco joined hotel workers and Wade Luneburg of Unite Here Local 17, which represents 7,000 hospitality workers in the Twin Cities, to discuss the new report, “Growing Profits at Workers’ Expense” at a new conference July 14.

“Minnesota is a great place and hosting events like the All-Star Game can benefit everyone,” Fletcher said. “However, if we are trying to put our best foot forward to the world, worker exploitation is not what we should be known for. Minnesota is better than that.”

City boosters have predicted the All-Star Week festivities could generate a $75 million impact for Minneapolis.

Luneberg of Unite Here Local 17 called the All-Star festivities a “once-in-a-generation” event for the city — making it an appropriate time to take stock of the hospitality industry. He said some hotels have taken the “high road” to improve conditions for workers and can serve as an example for others to follow suit.

The MN 2020 report found that significant cuts in staffing levels have led to increased profits for hotels. Between 2008 and 2011, hotel revenues increased by 9 percent while employment in the industry declined by 14 percent.

The median salary for non-management hotel workers was $22,340 a year in May 2013, according to MN 2020.

Other key findings include hotel workers — particularly housekeeping staff — face higher injury rates than other employees in many other industries, including construction and rail transportation. Women and people of color disproportionately experience the hardships.

Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, criticized the report. “[MN 2020] has a point of view and they looked for Census data to frame it,” he said.

He said he hasn’t heard complaints about workplace injuries and noted that many hotels have started having housekeepers work in pairs for safety reasons.

“We want to run safe workplaces,” he said. “We’re proud of the jobs we create. Many are first opportunities for people who are learning English.”

Mike Noble, the owner/innkeeper at the Normandy Inn and president of the Greater Minneapolis Hotel Association, said the report is not representative of how hotels operate in Minneapolis. 

“[The report] is divisive and falsely maligns local businesses to the detriment of our city,” he said. “In downtown Minneapolis, you’ll find our hotels operate as collaborative teams within which everyone’s efforts are respected.”

He noted that room attendants in major hotels in Minneapolis are paid $13.96 an hour and are not required to clean more than 16 rooms per shift.

“When occupancy is high, we hire more attendants to not exceed the 16-room limit,” he said, adding it’s customary for downtown hotels to provide employees a free shift meal and a retirement pension to vested employees, among other benefits. 

While he said he doesn’t want to minimize the hard work done by housekeepers and other hotel staff, he said the report doesn’t accurately reflect the conditions in Minneapolis hotels for workers. 

Luneberg said Noble represents one of the good hotel operators.

“The focus of the report is and should be that many workers are being left behind,” he said. “In the City of Minneapolis the lodging revenue tax accounts for 10 percent of Minneapolis’ sales tax. We need to invest in the workforce to create a stronger and better hospitality industry for everyone in our communities.”

The report focused on hotels in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester. Overall, there are more than 72,000 hotel rooms in the state at 877 properties.

Franco said “we all bear the cost of low wages in the hotel industry.”

“Our analysis of industry data clearly shows that hotels are making choices they do not have to make,” he said. “Profits have returned, the market is strong and hotels can afford to treat workers better.”

The St. Paul-based think tank also outlined several ways hotels could improve conditions for workers, including reducing excessive workloads, allowing workers to join unions, researching ways to prevent injuries and providing better health insurance coverage, among other things.

At the press conference Olga Salverda, a housekeeper at the Crown Plaza Northstar Hotel and a union member, said she’s grateful for her job and would like to see other hotels follow Crown Plaza’s lead in reducing excessive workloads for workers.

Jessica Tapia, a housekeeper at Loews Minneapolis Hotel, which recently purchased Graves 601, also spoke favorably about her employer, which allows workers to unionize. She also cleans 16 room a day on average, a manageable workload compared to some faced by housekeepers at other hotels.

Joy Anderson, a banquet server at the Marquette, a Hilton Hotel, said she’d like to see higher wages for hotel workers. She’s a union member and a 14-year employee of the Marquette. She said she’s also concerned about the injuries workers have to cope with and knows many who have problems with back pain because of heavy lifting on the job.

She considers the Marquette one of the best employers in the industry and would like to see other hotels follow its lead. 

City Council Member Jacob Frey (Ward 3), who represents portions of downtown, said he’d like to see the economic gains from big events like the All-Star Game benefit everyone.

“While Minneapolis does well to highlight the city through major events, we can’t disregard the workers that make it all possible,” he said. “When big events come to town, let’s make sure that the benefit flows to everyone.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct statements attributed to Joy Anderson about working conditions at the Marquette.)