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Battle of the beds
By Carolyn Jones, San Francisco Chronicle
Travelers are raving about the enormous, fluffy new beds that the nation's biggest hotel chains are spending millions on as they one-up each other in an escalating mattress war.
Like any war, this one is not without casualties.
The same beds that are so kind to travelers' backs are wreaking havoc on hotel housekeepers who wrestle with the behemoths -- not to mention the amazing array of pillows, duvet covers, down comforters, 300-thread-count sheets, shams, bed skirts, bolsters and bed scarves that need daily tending.
"The hardest for me is the duvet -- trying to change it, just one person," said Lisa Herrmann, who's been a housekeeper for eight years at the Oakland Marriott. "And the mattress is too heavy. It makes my back hurt."
Herrmann, who takes Aleve almost daily and ices her arms after work each day, is not alone, nor is she simply whining. Federal statistics show it's a real problem, and a study published in July by UCSF researchers found 3 out of 4 hotel housekeepers experience "very severe" pain.
"It is not minor; it really is a lot of pain these people are suffering," said the study's author, Dr. Niklas Krause, associate professor of medicine at UCSF. "Nobody should be working in conditions like that."
The problem, according to union representatives, doctors and those charged with keeping those beds made, is housekeepers are being forced to clean the same number of rooms per shift even as the beds grow ever bigger and more elaborate, requiring more time to change. The housekeepers are hurting themselves trying to keep up.
At the Oakland Marriott, where housekeepers make about $12 an hour, the women -- and housekeepers are almost exclusively women -- must clean 16 rooms per day. For Herrmann, that means changing 26 beds, each of which has five to seven pillows, a duvet and all the accessories.
Each bed takes 14 to 15 minutes to change, she said, leaving just 15 or 16 minutes to vacuum, dust and mop; empty the trash; replace the myriad soaps and lotions; and clean the mirror, tub, sink, toilet, walls and faucets. Plus she has to reload her cart with fresh linens from the laundry room, which requires a time-consuming trip to the hotel basement.
It's all part of a mad dash by hotels to capitalize on travelers' obsessive quest for a luxurious night's sleep. Each is upping the ante with more pillows, bigger mattresses and fluffier accoutrements.
And it's even worse in other parts of the country, where housekeepers -- who average about $8 an hour -- must clean as many as 19 rooms.
"These women are getting the hell beaten out of them," said Marcos Escobar, an organizer for the housekeepers union, Unite Local 2850, which is in negotiations with the Oakland Marriott and has made the rising number of injuries a top issue. "After five or 10 years, they're done. You can only last so long."
If a housekeeper can't keep up, she risks being reprimanded and possibly fired.
Marriott officials say they've seen no increase in injuries among housekeepers since upgrading the beds this year.
"In general, we have not heard complaints," said John Wolf, the hotel chain's spokesman.
The company spent $190 million this year improving the beds at 2,400 hotels. Marriott hails the upgraded beds for their "new, fresh, white look" and "more luxurious look and feel."
But they don't include new mattresses, Wolf said. The only change is the bedding, including 2- to 4-inch layers of padding called pillowtops between the mattresses and the sheets.
"Since we put in the new (bedding), satisfaction scores went up significantly, not just with the beds but with the whole experience," he said. "It tells you how much people value a good night's sleep."
But part of the appeal, he said, is how all these accoutrements look.
"It's more stylish, more luxurious, and much, much more comfortable," he said. "People are much more attuned to that look, thanks to HGTV (Home & Garden Television), and expect to find it on the road."
The new beds have proven so popular that some hotels are now offering their sleep experience online. For $1,300 you can order Marriott's "Revive;" $1,450 will buy you Hilton's "Suite Dreams." Nordstrom sells Westin's "Heavenly Bed" for $1,400. That just covers the mattress and box spring. The bedding can run another $1,000.
The hotel industry's focus on the perfect bed is no accident, said Nancy Shark, executive director of the Better Sleep Council. As the population ages, more people suffer from back problems and have trouble sleeping and therefore place a higher value on a good night's sleep.
"Boomers are getting older, their bodies are changing, and they have money to spend," Shark said. "There is an overall public awareness of the role sleep plays in the quality of life, and certainly, a good mattress plays a role in that."
Gone are the days when a hotel bed consisted of a lumpy mattress, thin blanket and worn bedspread. Walk into most any brand-name hotel these days, and you're likely to find a thick king-size mattress covered with no fewer than 20 components, including six pillows, a bolster, a skirt, a comforter, its cover and a "scarf" to add color.
In the UCSF study, researchers found that 62 percent of hotel housekeepers had seen a doctor for their pain, and 84 percent were taking medication for pain they incurred at work.
They interviewed 941 hotel workers in Las Vegas and concluded that their injury rates are increasing because of the upgrades and having less time to do each task.
"I think it's an excessive workload, and, of course, I'm worried," Krause said. "These are entry-level jobs for immigrants and women, and they're at a real disadvantage in fighting for better conditions. I think it is very exploitive."
There were 17,980 injuries among housekeepers and maids across the country in 2004 that led to days missed from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers are probably far higher, Krause and others said, because workers are reluctant to report their injuries for fear of being reprimanded or fired.
Herrmann, the Oakland Marriott housekeeper, worries that back pain prevents her from doing her job well.
"I like my hotel. I like my job. I want to do a good job for the guests," she said. "But I want to work safely."
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