Should States Legislate how you run your Housekeeping Department?

The City of Cambridge in Massachusetts has moved to create a law that will effectively ban accommodation providers from outsourcing in-house jobs.

The ordinance will require any hotel seeking a license to prove that its workers are directly employed by the hotel and not by an outside labour agency. Although the regulation has not yet been written, the city’s licensing commission voted last month to move ahead with it at the behest of city council. The regulation will prevent anyone who is not a hotel employee from entering a room to which a guest has been given a key.

The commission purportedly based its decision on public health and safety concerns, saying that hotels should be accountable for the housekeepers and other employees who are near guests and their belongings.

But the real reason for the law is because some hotel chains, notably in Massachusetts it has been Hyatt, have been saving money by outsourcing traditional in-house jobs to temporary staffing agencies that pay workers lower wages and don’t offer health benefits.

The trigger for the ordinance was the 2009 mass firing of housekeepers at Hyatt hotels in Cambridge and Boston. At the time, 100 housekeepers were sacked and replaced with new workers who earned about half the pay.

When three Hyatts abruptly laid off their longtime housekeeping staff and outsourced their jobs to a subcontractor employing low-wage temps, it created a massive public outcry and led to the state boycotting Hyatt hotels for government employee travel. The debacle was a PR disaster for the chain.

State and local governments in the US have been increasing legislation that restricts labour options for business, especially in the hospitality sector. The Massachusetts law is the second action affecting housekeepers in the last 12 months following California’s unpopular On our knees legislation. That legislation outlaws “unsafe” housekeeping practices like cleaning bathroom floors and making beds without fitted sheets.

In the California instance, the accommodation industry was caught off guard believing that when the initial legislation was proposed it was a “joke”. It isn’t a joke any longer. The Australian accommodation industry needs to be better prepared. It could happen here.

The array of OH&S protection measures in force in Australia more than covers housekeeping issues but that will not stop pressure from United Voice and other unions for more specific legislation as its US counterpart Unite Here has achieved.

The real issue is not weather an in-house worker can do a better job or be less of a risk to guests than an outsourced housekeeper but should it be the role of the state or local government to legislate how an accommodation provider must run a business. And if similar restrictions like those in Massachusetts and California gain a foothold here, where will it end? The states are not renowned for making sensible legislation and one can only wince at the potential of interference they could have on the operation of an accommodation business.

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