Occupational Health News Roundup

At Slate, Michelle Chen writes about the experiences of hotel housekeepers in Miami during spring break. The story starts with Adelle Sile, a housekeeper at the four-star Fontainebleau Miami Beach:

Around this time of year, thanks to the influx of spring break and Easter break vacationers, the time (Sile) has to clean each room during her eight-hour shift gets squeezed as guests stretch their mornings to the final minutes before checkout. When she does finally get in, she sometimes opens the door to find vomit, empty bottles, crack pipes, marijuana buds, and makeshift mattresses of cushions and blankets strewn about—the season’s bacchanalian detritus.

“My back [is] hurting me. Picking up trash, picking up trash, trash everywhere, like this, like this,” Sile said recently, demonstrating the scene in her modest, pleather-upholstered living room in her working-class immigrant neighborhood in North Miami. By the end of the day, she said in a Creole-inflected drawl, “My body dead.” (The Fontainebleau declined to comment for this article.)

Compared with even lower-paid work in retail and fast food, hotel jobs are considered a decent way to earn a living in Miami, offering one way for poor immigrants to work toward living wages and benefits after a few years. Though tourism service jobs start at poverty pay scales, the fast-growing sector offers a narrow path out of drudgery. But the annual pilgrimage of college students for spring break coincides with a sharp rise in both complaints and grievances—complaints from guests about poor service and grievances filed by workers in disputes with managers over working conditions or contract rules.

In addition to relying on temporary staffing agencies to supply housekeepers during spring break and other high points in the tourist season, hotels are also recruiting guest workers through the H-2B visa program, Chen reports. However, the lack of oversight has turned the visa program into a “back door for unregulated, but nominally legal, migrant labor.” Chen reports:

Jesse from the Philippines hoped to get professional experience in Florida’s hospitality sector a few years ago through the H-2B program, but the agency that sponsored her ended up leaving her stranded. She got a string of referrals but never actually worked for more than a few weeks at a time, she said, paying the labor broker roughly $1,000 in fees just to be on constant standby, virtually bonded to the agency for more than a year. The scheme was eventually busted by the Justice Department, after the agency was found to have bilked about $52 million collected from workers from the Philippines, Brazil, Russia, and Dominican Republic. “I felt like just being disposable people,” she recalled. “When they need us we’re there; when they don’t need us we’re not there.”

According to Greg Schell, a labor attorney with Florida Legal Services, even if they aren’t paid much less than U.S. workers, H-2B workers are preferred in the hotel industry because they offer flexibility and reliability. From the management’s perspective, U.S.-based workers provide a less stable return on investment: “[They] take off, they switch jobs, they have to go take a kid to the doctor. The foreign worker doesn’t have his family here. He’s here to work whenever I need it.”

Read the full story at Slate.

In other news:

Vox: Libby Nelson reports that a split-vote of 4-4 in the Supreme Court case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association means public-sector unions just avoided a huge blow. With the tie vote, a lower court ruling in favor of unions stands. The case challenged the constitutionality of fair-share or agency fees — fees nonmembers pay to unions that negotiate agreements that benefit both union members and nonmembers. Nelson, who noted that the case could end up back before the court in the future, writes that if Justice Scalia were still alive, the case may have turned out very differently: “Friedrichs v. CTA was always destined to end up at the Supreme Court, because getting rid of agency fees would have required overturning a precedent. And oral arguments in January suggested that, before Scalia's death, the court had five votes to do just that.”

Buzzfeed: Cora Lewis reports that elected officials and union reps in California have worked out a deal that would eventually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. Los Angeles and San Francisco have already passed $15 minimum wage measures. The deal was made just days after advocates succeeded in getting a minimum wage referendum on the November ballot. Lewis writes: “The increase in California will put an additional $4,000 in the pockets of more than 5 million low-wage workers each year, according to the Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, bringing minimum annual income for full-time workers to $31,000. Businesses with fewer than 25 employees would have until 2023 to phase in the raise in California.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune: Christopher Snowbeck reports that a federal appeals court has upheld a National Labor Relations Board finding that a Jimmy John’s franchisee violated the union organizing rights of six employees who were fired after protesting the company’s sick leave policies. Fired workers said they were happy with the ruling, but that the process took way too long — they lost their jobs more than five years ago. Snowbeck reports on the events surrounding the firings: “In early 2011, pro-union workers placed posters around town displaying two identical Jimmy John’s sandwiches, with one described as made by a healthy worker and the other by a sick worker. ‘Can’t tell the difference?’ the poster said. ‘That’s too bad, because Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days.’”

In These Times: Mario Vasquez reports that more than 1,000 Los Angeles nurses recently wrapped up a week-long strike to call for a contract that addresses chronic understaffing problems. The nurses, members of the California Nurses Association (CNA), say understaffing at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center (LAMC) is creating dangerous workplace conditions for employees and patients. California was the first state to put in place minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, but protestors say the policy isn’t being adequately implemented. Vasquez writes: “The LAMC nurses also claim that they are the lowest paid Kaiser nurses in the state, receiving no cost-of-living or wage increases in the last six years. They voted to join CNA-NNU in June 2015, members say, in order to reverse this trend, seeking a contract similar to the one CNA had secured for 18,000 Kaiser nurses in Northern and Central California.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

More like this

The U.S. Supreme Court released two big decisions yesterday. The first, which you’ve probably heard about, ruled that for-profit companies can deny female employees insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. (For more on the potential consequences of this…
It didn’t make a lot of headlines, but a new presidential executive order could be a big deal for workers' rights and safety. On July 31, President Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which requires federal contractors to disclose prior labor violations and prohibits…
They take care of our most precious resource and yet most of them have to rely on public assistance just to make ends meet. Katie Johnston at the Boston Globe wrote about a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, which “found that…
The experience of Pennsylvania nurse Jessica Wheeler starts off Esther Kaplan’s piece on workplace speedups in The Nation. The article begins: Wheeler recalls one night when she had a patient who couldn’t breathe and several others under her care. “I called the supervisor to ask for anybody—a…