More than a hundred hotel workers and their supporters marched on a grey day last February, wearing bright red knit hats and carrying signs with a message: CLEAN HOTEL ROOMS SAVE JOBS.
In the tourism heart of Washington, D.C., ringed by posh hotels and globally famous landmarks, they marched to a familiar beat, chanting "What do we want? Clean rooms! When do we want it? Every day!"
Their demand may have sounded simple: that the D.C. council extend a temporary ordinance that in effect required hotels to clean rooms daily, unless a guest opts out. (The council complied just days later.)
But for the hospitality union UNITE HERE, that requirement is so important to its members, it's waged a fight over the issue across the U.S. and Canada.
A room that hasn't been cleaned in days
Daily room cleaning was never a big issue before 2020. But at the beginning of the pandemic, when anxieties ran high about how COVID is transmitted, many hotel guests declined to have housekeeping workers enter their rooms. Fewer rooms to clean meant hotels didn't need as many workers.
Through collective bargaining agreements in some places and legislative efforts in others, the union has pushed to make daily room cleaning standard practice once again, both to preserve jobs mostly held by women of color, and to ensure that the cleaning task itself doesn't become more taxing than it already is.
Because a room that hasn't been cleaned in days?
"The day you check out, that room is terrible," says Chandra Anderson, who as a housekeeper in Baltimore has encountered overflowing trash bins, piles of wet towels, and toilet paper strewn everywhere.
"You never know what you're going to see."
Taking the fight to another popular destination
This spring, the union focused its efforts on a key battleground: Nevada.
The state's most famous city, Las Vegas, is home to more than 150,000 hotel rooms, according to its visitors authority. Thousands more rooms can be found in Reno.
As the pandemic upended tourism in the summer of 2020, Nevada passed a law creating COVID protections for hospitality workers, like paid time off for quarantining.
It also included a daily room cleaning requirement.
This was back when people would wash groceries before putting them away. Relying on research that found the COVID virus could live for days on hard surfaces, the union successfully argued that frequent and enhanced cleaning was safer for both guests and workers.
But times have changed.
This spring, State Senator Marilyn Dondero Loop, a Democrat from Las Vegas, introduced a bill repealing the COVID law.
"It's time to sunset a COVID house cleaning policy that served its purpose but outlived its necessity," said Loop at a hearing in May.
On Thursday, the Nevada Assembly passed her bill, 33 to 9. It now awaits the governor's signature.
UNITE HERE's Nevada affiliate, Culinary Union Local 226, had warned that if hotels aren't required to clean rooms daily, they will cut back, putting profits over jobs.
"We think the industry is attempting to change guests' behavior based on the pandemic, and we think that's bad for everyone," said the union's secretary-treasurer Ted Pappageorge. "Customers are still paying for first class service and first class rooms, but not getting the first class service."
Hotels say it's all about guest preferences
And in the past, major hotel groups have offered guests loyalty points for forgoing room cleanings, calling it the environmentally-friendly choice. The union calls this greenwashing.
But Ayesha Molino, a senior vice president with MGM Resorts International, said in testimony that MGM is just responding to changing guest preferences. More than 40% of MGM's guests in Las Vegas put out do not disturb signs or otherwise declined cleaning over the past 12 months.
"It doesn't matter if a customer's staying at the Bellagio or the Luxor. What we have seen is that our customer behavior is very consistent," Molino told state lawmakers. "The rate at which our guests are declining daily housekeeping is nearly double what it was before the pandemic."
Molino added that MGM is not incentivizing guests to do so, nor advertising it as an option.
Nationally, the number of people working in hotel housekeeping is down more than 20% compared to before the pandemic, according to the Labor Department's most recent figures from May 2022.
Supply and demand both appear to be factors. Since the pandemic, hotels have faced steep competition for workers.
"It's not a matter of us trying to have fewer. It's that we can't, rather, attract enough," Molino said.
Beyond jobs, cleaners worry about safety and security
UNITE HERE says the problem is cyclical. With fewer housekeepers on staff, it's a less attractive job.
Union housekeepers testified about feeling scared now that they're often working alone on a floor of a megaresort on the Las Vegas strip. They shared stories of coworkers being attacked by drunk and drugged guests.
Others spoke of how much harder it is to clean a room after several days.
"The linen is very heavy from the mountain of wet towels that have been piled up for days," housekeeper Rawanda Rogers told lawmakers. "We have a lot of party people in the rooms who trash the rooms, and it's so hard on my body."
The union says the Nevada legislature's repeal of the daily room cleaning requirement won't be the last word. As it's done elsewhere, the union plans to raise the issue in collective bargaining when its contract expires later this year.
"We think these may be strike issues, and we will fight for the very best contracts for our members," said Pappageorge.