Going "green" can be cutting jobs

Sean Cole Oct 15, 2010

Going "green" can be cutting jobs

Sean Cole Oct 15, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: If you’ve stayed in a hotel room in the past, I don’t know, 10 years, you’ve seen those little cards by the sink. ‘Help us conserve water and energy,’ they say, ‘reuse your towels.’ Something like that.

Starwood Hotels has taken that concept to the next level, to the dismay of the housekeeping staff.

Marketplace’s Sean Cole explains.

Sean Cole: As I methodically walked the floors of Starwood’s Sheraton Centre Toronto, I kept seeing these cards hanging from the doorknobs. I counted them quietly.

Cole: There’s one “Make a Green Choice” card.

They’re like Do Not Disturb cards. But they say in big letters: “Make a Green Choice.”

Cole: Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. This is a hot floor.

The card means ‘Don’t clean my room.’ Housekeepers can’t go in. In exchange, the guest gets a $5 coupon toward food or beverages within the hotel, because less cleaning saves water and electricity. Fewer chemicals go down the drain.

Or that’s the hotel’s side. The room attendants have another name for the Make a Green Choice program. They call it the Fake Green Choice program.

Brigida Ruiz: Yeah it’s fake.

Brigida Ruiz is a shop steward for a union called UNITE HERE! She’s been a room attendant at the Sheraton Centre Toronto for 19 years. And she says when you hang that card on your door, you’re not just cutting back on water and electricity.

Ruiz: You also cut the hours from the room attendant. If 200 guests hung that tonight, somebody count how many room attendants they have to cut.

Of course there were only 29 cards out of more than 1,300 rooms the night I went. The point is less cleaning means fewer cleaners. Ruiz says this is just a sneaky way of reducing payroll. Also, guests already had the option of reusing their sheets and towels. So the only difference Make a Green Choice makes, she says, is a messy one.

Ruiz: And they use it for three days to five days to seven days. And when they check out the room is very bad. It’s really filthy, dirty, dusty.

And it takes her three times longer to clean it, she says, which requires even more water and cleaning fluid than usual. I called the general manager of the Sheraton, who referred me to parent company Starwood, who never provided someone to interview despite several requests. The company did email a statement saying Make a Green Choice has saved nearly 30 million gallons of water, about 129,000 kilowatts of electricity and 37,000 gallons of chemicals thus far. This is at more than 160 Sheraton and Westin hotels across North America.

UNITE HERE! is doubtful about those stats, and has made this a bargaining issue in ongoing contract negotiations. They want to kill the program, just like they were able to do at five hotels in Hawaii.

Eric Gill: On Kauai where they have most actively promoted the program, we’ve seen as much as a 25 percent loss of work hours in our housekeeping department.

Eric Gill is with UNITE HERE! Local Five in Honolulu. He says a partner company to Starwood wanted to convert a bunch of hotel rooms into private condos. Which, again, would mean fewer hotel rooms to clean. Negotiations began.

Gill: We absolutely needed hotel accommodations to drive our jobs. And so the discussion became how many of this and how many of that. And when we came down to the numbers, the number of hotel rooms they were offering would work if there’s no green program.

So the company conceded. Room attendants in Toronto have no such leverage. But the thing I keep coming back to is this:

Gill: We believe that most people who assertively care about preserving the environment are the kind of people who would also care about the jobs and livelihoods of the workers in the rooms that they stay in.

Exactly. So the hotel says, ‘Help us conserve!’ and the union says, ‘Help us keep our hours!’ and… aauuugh! It’s enough to drive socially conscious vacationers insane! All I can tell you what I’m gonna do next time I go to a Sheraton: not take the stairs.

Cole: I wonder how many floors this hotel has.

Forty-three. There are 43 floors.

In Toronto, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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