Hyatt Hotel Housekeepers, Fired After Protesting Sexual Harassment, Rally for Better Treatment

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.

But it’s also a case about the devaluation of housekeepers and other hotel workers; the Reyes sisters were taking an extra 10 minutes on their lunch breaks, but not because they were lazy and unmotivated. Like many hotel workers, they were forced to because they couldn’t take their legally mandated 10-minute break in the morning as a result of having such cramped schedules. Housekeepers are tasked with tight quotas and when a hotel is at full occupancy, it’s difficult to get rooms turned over in time while also taking breaks. Like many other Hyatt housekeepers, Martha and Lorena made up their breaks where they could, and that was often during lunchtime.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to routine violations of workers' rights at Hyatt. The hotel where the sisters were working has a history of labor violations, including intimidation and harassment of workers involved in union organizing. Hyatt housekeepers are underpaid and overworked in a very gendered field, which ties in with the sexual harassment issue. 

Women workers in low-ranking positions, like housekeepers, are often presumed to be sexually available, a recurrent issue for women working in large chain hotels, who may be sexually assaulted or harassed by guests as well as other staff. In 2011, this issue made international headlines when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of assaulting a housekeeper. Frequently, hotel staff have limited legal recourse and protections for fear of retaliation, and thus suffer these conditions in silence. Providing a safer environment for housekeepers would reduce the incidence of harassment and assault, but it would also add to the hotel company’s bottom line, so the industry has been resistant to the idea.

And it’s a case about race; the Reyes sisters are among thousands of hotel housekeepers employed in California, many of whom are Latina. Representation of women of color among hotel workers is significant, and many are of undocumented or unclear immigration status, which makes it even more difficult for them to report work and safety violations. Troublingly, chains like Hyatt are turning to private contractors for cleaning services, which allows them to escape legal and moral liability for abuses in their hotels. In this culture of fear, many women may be intimidated into remaining silent about sexual harassment because of worries about deportation and other retaliatory actions.

The sisters note that one of their hopes for the outcome of this case is more community support for immigrant women who are currently too afraid to speak up about harassment and abuse. Martha says “the kind of work that we have is the dirtiest work that there is, and we do it as immigrants. It doesn’t give them the right to humiliate us because we’re immigrants.” A notable element of the Reyes sisters’ story is not just that their faces were taped onto bikini snaps without their permission, but that the bodies of the women in the photographs were white. The sisters weren’t just forcibly sexualized and turned into objects of amusement—they were also deracialized.

The Reyes sisters were considered disposable by Hyatt not just because they were housekeepers, with few legal protections and a limited social status, but also because they are Chicana, and thus the hotel thought it was unlikely that their case would attract attention. It would have been right, if the sisters hadn’t been determined, and backed by a union that was willing to go to bat for them even though they weren’t members, for which the sisters are grateful.

The parallels with this and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case are inescapable. Kahn was accused of sexual assault by hotel worker Nafissatou Diallo, who was also represented by UNITE HERE. Diallo was raked through the coals by the media, which repeatedly identified her as a maid and stressed her immigrant status, attempting to suggest she was lying for profit.

With a power imbalance this extreme, it is almost inevitable that charges were dropped, but they did spark an international conversation. Diallo’s experiences led to a campaign to provide hotel workers with panic buttons so they could summon assistance in the event of assault. And they were also a lingering reminder of the dangers of speaking up about sexual harassment when you are in a socially disadvantaged position.

Like Nafissatou, Martha and Lorena Reyes are going up against an institution much more powerful than they are, and their union backing is a big part of why they’ve managed to make any headway. With the strength of a union, workers can rely on assistance and support from organizers and fellow members interested in advocating for their rights and making sure they aren’t trampled. This is one reason many large employers, like the Hyatt hotel chain, fear unionization.

Hyatt’s response has veered from polite refusals to comment to a unionbashing campaign that also attempts to undermine the Reyes sisters and their case. Peter Hillan, a spokesperson for Hyatt, seems to relish any opportunity for trashing unions in front of the media, and has accused UNITE HERE of “using falsehoods and extortions as they try and grow their membership at non-union hotels.” Hyatt should have nothing to fear from the union if it’s committed to providing workers with a safe, clean, supportive environment, which begs the question: Why is Hyatt so eager to keep unions out of its member hotels?

And why is Hyatt so eager to appropriate International Women’s Day? Possibly in anticipation of the planned action in front of the Hyatt Santa Clara on March 8, the hotel has put up a Rosie the Riveter poster in the employee area, complete with speech bubble: “Hyatt celebrates women at work. March 8!” The chain is effectively repurposing a holiday originally dedicated to the celebration of working women.

All the Reyes sister want are their jobs back, with back pay. Like other workers in the United States, Martha and Lorena Reyes just want a steady job and human dignity, and they’re being joined by growing numbers of supporters incensed at their treatment by the hotel chain, as well as Hyatt’s reaction. This includes a coalition of academics, including women’s studies professors and others interested in addressing social inequality, who have issued a solidarity pledge which they’ve asked others to sign. Their letter includes a direct discussion of the harmful conditions experienced by Hyatt employees, demanding change for housekeepers across the country:

The sexualization of housekeepers by Hyatt management is an appalling expression of power that has no place at work. It has tangible physical as well as psychological impacts. It belongs to a long list of well-documented abusive and unsafe practices that Hyatt housekeepers, many of them women of color, all over the country endure.

The outpouring of support has been gratifying for Martha and Lorena Reyes. Speaking about the upswell of support and the people she’s met while campaigning, Martha said that she’s “extremely happy and glad to know that there are good-hearted people in the world, and to have met so many people in the world with good hearts.” Lorena added: “And that’s why we’re out there talking about what happened to us, because it’s important for people to know.”

Organizers are marching in support of the Reyes sisters on Thursday, March 8, in San Francisco and Santa Clara. The Santa Clara action is taking place at the Hyatt Regency from 8am to 10pm, and will include a delegation of representatives who plan to enter the hotel to repeat the demand that Martha and Lorena Reyes be reinstated. In San Francisco, organizers will meet at the Grand Hyatt in Union Square at noon for a short speaking program that will include a domestic worker and Patty Bellasalma, President of California NOW.

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