Hyatt Hotel Housekeepers, Fired After Protesting Sexual Harassment, Rally for Better Treatment
Photo Credit: UNITE HERE
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Hyatt Hotels has a funny way of showing appreciation for its housekeepers; first it tapes their faces onto pictures of bikini-clad babes, and then it fires them. The Reyes sisters, Martha and Lorena, with a combined 30 years of experience at Hyatt, were dismissed from their jobs at a Santa Clara, California Hyatt on Oct. 14, 2011 after Martha Reyes removed altered photographs of herself and her sister from an “employee appreciation” bulletin board. Their faces had been superimposed onto the much slimmer and younger bodies of white women at the beach, complete with surfboards, as the display was evidently beach-themed.
Since then, the sisters have been out of work and outraged at their mistreatment by an already infamous hotel chain. Hyatt has an unacceptably high rate of safety violations, has been involved in the attempted suppression of striking workers, and tried to fire a pregnant dishwasher who needed time off from work. It also has one of the poorest safety records of any US hotel chain, particularly for housekeepers.
Hyatt claims the firing was the result of the sisters' taking an extra 10 minutes on their lunch breaks, constituting “theft of company time.” The Reyes sisters contend it was retaliatory, and they’re taking the matter to court in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit, assisted by UNITE HERE (although they are not union members) and attorneys Adam Zapala and Sarah Varela. Given that there’s no history at the hotel of releasing employees for taking extra time during lunch when it’s a very common practice, the EEOC suit could have very solid grounds.
The case of the Reyes sisters illustrates horrifying collisions between sexism, racism and disregard for hotel workers; at every turn, the story becomes more complex, and more troubling. Many hotel workers are immigrant women laboring in unsafe conditions where they are exposed to harsh chemicals, abusive guests, long working hours, and physically demanding work. Union representation is limited, though not for the workers' lack of trying, and many women are too afraid to speak up about their conditions because their jobs are too important for their survival.
On the surface, this is a case about sexual harassment. The Reyes sisters did not consent to having their faces used in a sexualized collage that was apparently a source of much amusement for other employees, who laughed when they saw the photos. Martha and Lorena both felt humiliated and ashamed when they saw the images; Lorena doesn’t even own a bikini, and after 24 years of hard work as a housekeeper, doesn’t have the kind of body used with her face. Martha tells AltetNet that “I was the one who had to listen to and be there while people were laughing, my coworkers and other supervisors.” This does not sound like employee appreciation, or harmless office fun.
Furthermore, they were ordered to put the pictures back up after removing them. After turning them into sex objects, members of management demanded that they retroactively consent; the Reyes sisters refused, and within days the hotel chain was reviewing them, clearly looking for an excuse to fire them. Blogger Flazia Dzodan pointed out via email that:
...they were confronted by HR with the presence of the colleague that made the collage, the colleague demanded the collage to be hanged again and HR, in turn, informed them that they had to comply with this request. It's the ultimate removal of autonomy. It's an action that also speaks of their attitude about consent. The women's consent to have their faces [taped onto the bodies of other women] be damned, all that mattered was the [collage author’s] request. This is an incredible violation.
Speaking up about sexual harassment can be dangerous when the result may be a retaliatory firing. Although this is illegal, such incidents can and do happen. Hyatt was hoping it would be able to quietly dismiss the sisters for refusing to tolerate sexism in the workplace, and the result was an unexpected surprise for the hotel chain when they fought back.