It’s Not All Bright Lights and Pillow Mints

Las Vegas is judged by its hotel rooms, and those rooms are increasingly maintained by immigrant women. A look inside their American dream, and the training it takes to get there.

In the “Bellagio Room”—a mock hotel room in the 35,000-square-foot Culinary Academy of Las Vegas—Drissa Napoles snaps a sheet over the mattress, watches it float down, then pulls it this way and that, stretching it even on both sides, smoothing it out with the palm of her hand as she goes.

At the foot of the bed, the 36-year-old measures the space between the sheet hem and bottom of the mattress with her hand. It should hang one hand’s width above the box springs. She uses the same measurement at the head of the mattress, where she folds the top sheet down: one hand’s width. This is as old as hospitality, the measure of bed-making.

It takes her less than six minutes to make this king-size bed, including changing the crisp, white pillow cases, and when she is done, each corner has sharp folds, crisp lines and no wrinkles. It’s a thing of beauty.

Napoles immigrated from Cuba seven months ago. Her father was already here, dealing cards at the MGM for 21 years. She was a nursing assistant in Cuba for five years before working as a maid in a small hotel there and making $15 a month.

“This country is much better for me and my family,” she says. “In Cuba, power is absolute. The president is very bad. My father was here, thank to God.

“I take a class at Catholic Charities and they help people with immigration and they told me to apply for this program,” she says.

Napoles apologizes time and time again for her English skills, but her English is actually pretty good for such a short study time. She turns to Celine Dion for help. “She sings English slow and good, so I understand.”

She has a one-year work permit. When it ends, she plans to apply for residence, and four years after that, for U.S. citizenship. “Right now, I have no money. I think this program is a good opportunity.”

There are more than 150,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, and every night, after the cacophony and ethical stretches and luck-pushing, each tourist retires to a tight, clean bed, which someone has made with her bare hands.

The Culinary Academy, a joint venture between Culinary Union 226, Bartenders Union 165 and 26 Strip hotel properties, has trained more than 35,000 hospitality workers since 1993 in jobs ranging from steward to sommelier.

In 2011, 55 percent of the Academy’s graduates were Hispanic. Here, in the two-week guest-room attendant course, ethnic minorities and immigrants have a well-trodden path into the housekeeping industry, on the promise of earning about $16 an hour plus benefits. It’s a relationship regarded by most as mutually beneficial for Las Vegas and the hardworking immigrant, if also a notable sociological phenomenon.

Since 1980, the percentage of Las Vegas housekeepers who are foreign-born women has grown from less than 24 percent to 63 percent.

•••

Early in the job-training program, instructor Clara Robnett tells the new students what the guest-room attendant position will be like:

You’ll get to work, change into your uniform and put your belongings into a locker. You will get a cart, which needs to be filled with the necessities: linens, cleansers, toiletries. You will be given a clipboard and assigned a wing of rooms and given a key. You’ll clean each room in less than 30 minutes. If one room takes longer—it’s Vegas; you never know what you’re going to find in a hotel room—you should make up the time on other rooms, never cutting quality. The job is physical: You bend a lot, you reach high mirrors and push a vacuum and must remember to check under cushions and behind the curtains. You’ll probably start with four rooms, then eight, then 12, then 15 and, in some properties, as many as 18 or 20 rooms per eight-hour shift.

“At first, you’ll probably be afraid to take lunch, because you’re worried you won’t get it all done,” Robnett tells them. “But you need to eat lunch. If you don’t eat, you’re going to be dead in a week.”

Student Ramona Belmares interjects, “It’s OK, everybody will stay skinny!”

The class bursts into laughter. Robnett—who is tiny—laughs, too. She’s a friendly, energetic Mexican-American woman who moved to Las Vegas 12 years ago. She got her first job in housekeeping at the Motel 6 near the Strip, and learned on the job. From there she got a job a Hawthorn Suites, and then the Aladdin. She ascended to supervisory jobs, and ultimately, into this teaching job at the Culinary Academy.

In Mexico, she was a schoolteacher.

She continues telling her students the basics:

In a regular room if the guest is staying another night, you do not change the sheets unless they are dirty or ripped. In the VIP rooms, you change everything. If a guest asks for new sheets, you never say no.

Eight of the nine students in this small classroom are female, all ethnic minorities, all wearing $45 housekeeping uniforms they purchased for the class—short-sleeved, double-breasted gray pinstripe shirts with white collars and cuffs, black pants and black shoes.

Most of them are new to English and are now working on words like “biohazards” and “pathogens” in addition to “vacuum” and “supervisor.”

Robnett reviews housekeeping terms they’ve just learned, calling out the abbreviations and asking the class to tell her what they mean, and they respond enthusiastically:

“OD?” she asks.

“Occupied Dirty!” they say in unison.

“VC?”

“Vacant Clean!”

“Very good!” she says. “This is going to be a good class.”

•••

When the Academy started in 1993, the housekeeping classes took place at a small, government-owned apartment duplex on J Street. Food and beverage classes were held at a converted Days Inn on Fremont. The Academy moved to share space with Nevada Partners on its current site in 2001, then expanded in 2008 with the construction of this sprawling facility with a full-service restaurant, training kitchen and events center.

Today, in addition to operating an on-site restaurant called The Westside Bistro, the Academy runs the Springs Café at the Springs Preserve, holds the catering contract at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and prepares more than 900 hot meals a day for disadvantaged children, veterans and the elderly all across the Valley. When school is out, the Academy provides more than 2,000 boxed meals daily to kids in low-income areas through the federal Summer Food Service Program.

Felix Rappaport, president of The Mirage and a longtime Academy board member, says that in the boom years partner hotels were placing more demand for trained graduates on the academy than it could supply—particularly for guest-room attendants.

Today, in a tougher economy, the focus has shifted somewhat to career-enhancement training and community involvement, but the entry-level positions are still out there.

“It’s one of those rare situations when the union’s goals and ours are perfectly overlapping,” says Rappaport, who has worked as a Las Vegas hotel executive more than 20 years. The union and the properties, he says, share a goal of helping economically disenfranchised people develop long-term hospitality careers.

“I’ve seen people come to this country with nothing, and they find their way to our Culinary Academy, and … they say it saved their lives,” Rappaport says. He tells stories of Bosnian war refugees, of women whose husbands beat them and they relocated to Las Vegas with three kids and no language skills, of some whose stories parallel the Lost Boys of Sudan—all of whom benefited from the Academy’s training: “It put them in a situation where they were self-sufficient.”

The guest-room attendant course costs $455, and most students pay this through federal, state or nonprofit funding. After six months of employment at partner properties, a worker in a Culinary Union-classified position may return to the academy to take other career-enhancement courses for free.

Rappaport recalls being a vice president tasked with opening Treasure Island. He sat in on job interviews, and was surprised at what he found. “There were people who’d lived here 20 years but they had virtually no English language skills. Even though they’d been in the U.S., their communities were so insular … and that’s a self-limiting proposition.”

The Academy offers its students daily on-site vocational English classes. Inside a portable classroom behind the main facility, the instructor focuses primarily on the verbal skills necessary to communicate with guests, supervisors and co-workers, but also on basics that will help the students be more at ease in their everyday lives.

Behind that classroom, adjacent to another portable where a master sommelier is teaching advanced wine-tasting skills, the Citizenship Project occupies a small trailer. Established in 2001 by Culinary 226 and partners, the project helps immigrant union workers navigate the U.S. citizenship process without cost.

Rappaport says that even with some language skills, it’s often tough for job candidates who don’t have a U.S. work history to land their first job here, and that graduating from the Academy “gives them a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

“It gives people legitimacy. If you’ve been through the program, people know that you’ve been given a foundation,” he says. Hotel executives help design the training programs and frequently visit the academy, so the skills students learn are compliant with industry standards.

In turn, the employee arrives at interviews pre-screened with an understanding of what the job entails and some basic communication skills already in place.

•••

By the middle of the first week, students are timing themselves, making beds and then tearing the sheets off and starting all over again. Across the hall in the “Caesars Room,” Belmares, 43, works up a sweat dressing a king-size bed in five minutes, five seconds.

She moved here nine years ago from Mexico, and has worked cleaning offices and houses. She’s vibrant and hard-working, and clings to everything Robnett tells her, asking for clarification on words every so often—“What is drape?” “Cortina,” Robnett explains. “Ah.”

After making the bed, she explains in budding English her clear-cut motivation for being here: “Better to work at casino. More money. Better jobs.”

Two students in this class are from Ethiopia, about which Robnett notes, “Everybody likes the Ethiopian girls; they’re very hard-working, fast learners.”

Yordanos Mehari, 23, says it was very difficult to have enough money to eat in Ethiopia. “The majority of people live for food; that’s what they do every day. It’s so bad.” She’s tall and confident, and quick with the bed—clocking in at 4:58.

She moved from Ethiopia to Maryland five years ago and then to Las Vegas three years later. “It’s really hard to find a job,” she says. She’s been working at an Ethiopian restaurant but not bringing in enough to make ends meet. Since being in the U.S., she’s never had health insurance, and she owes $16,000 in hospital bills.

She has friends who are card dealers on the Strip, and she completed a card-dealer training class at a private company months ago, but was unable to land a job.

So she turned to housekeeping, first without coming to the Academy, and submitted her application in several hotels. “But they ask for experience, and I found out a Culinary Academy certificate counts as one year.”

•••

According to 2010 U.S. Census, the average woman working full time earns 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man for equivalent work. In the recent debate about the federal Equal Pay bill, which Congress killed in early June, the national discussion tilted not only toward equal pay for equal jobs, but toward what kind of jobs women fill versus those men fill.

While men dominate construction and mining jobs, women—for a variety of sociological reasons—have been ushered toward lower-paying positions: cleaning and clerical jobs.

Hotel housekeeping—an almost socially invisible job by design—has long been the terrain of women. In Las Vegas, UNLV sociology professor Christie Batson says, housekeeping has recently shifted from white women to women of color. The national wage gap is even higher for women of color—black women earn 64 cents and Hispanic women earning 56 cents to the white male’s dollar.

“Between 1980 and 2000, foreign-born women ‘replaced’ their native-born counterparts in housekeeping in Las Vegas,” Batson writes in her academic article, “Working ‘Back of House’: Women, Immigration and the Changing Complexion of Hotel Housekeeping in Las Vegas.”

“The share of foreign-born women,” she writes, “has exceeded two-thirds of the housekeeping employees. In essence, housekeeping has become a brown-collar job in Las Vegas.”

The reasons behind the increasing percentage of immigrants in Las Vegas housekeeping are many and complex. The language barriers often lead limited-English speakers to seek jobs with little person-to-person interaction rather than positions perceived to be more prestigious, and prompt some employers to favor them for “back-of-the-house” jobs.

Education level also plays a role, as well as cultural groups’ varying perceptions of the housekeeping job.

“The job itself is demanding, with tough conditions,” Batson says, “and it’s perceived to be a low-status job among white women particularly.” That perception influences work patterns in the industry, even though the guest-room-attendant jobs can pay more than other service jobs. Additionally, service jobs in Las Vegas frequently require less education than those elsewhere. Entire industry segments here end up informally divided by ethnicity.

Batson says foreign-born women are often perceived to be more vulnerable—that is, more likely to take orders and less likely to be argumentative—because of assumptions about their need for the job.

In truth, it’s the entire city that needs the guest-room attendants—the hospitality industry would collapse without someone to clean the rooms.

Still, there are few research studies on housekeeping, which Batson says perpetuates the perception of the job. “We tend to think of them as invisible workers, and that indicates a failure on the part of people who have a voice for not speaking for those who don’t.”

Perhaps the job needs more eyes on it. Consider that the position is fraught with dangers: potential contact with contaminated bodily fluids, unsafe encounters with strangers, strenuous physical work. The average guest has no idea how physical the job is—pushing the heavy cart, bending and stooping repetitively, lifting mattress after mattress.

In fact, as the hotel industry trends toward making each guest room more and more luxurious, housekeepers’ jobs get incrementally more difficult. When a hotel adds personal robes to the rooms, for example, that’s more items to push on the cart, which is already heavy. When the hotel upgrades its mattresses, that’s several more pounds for a maid to lift as she tucks in the sheets.

And then there are myriad solo interactions with guests and varying degrees of What-Happens-in-Vegas behavior.

•••

In the early part of the second week of the guest-room attendant program, the Academy teaches students how to apply for a job, how to interview—what to wear, how to greet a potential employer, what to say and what not to say—and then helps them file their applications, follow up online and, hopefully, land jobs.

The students submit applications to Caesars, the Cosmopolitan, Rio, Aria and Wynn, and then return to the classroom, where Robnett teaches them about customer service, dealing with guests properly and safety.

“Never correct a guest’s pronunciation,” Robnett says, and it draws a giggle from the class full of people who struggle with English pronunciation.

“What are the expectations of you on the job? Be fast, do a good job. Be on time always. Wear professional dress. Have a positive attitude,” she says. “Customer service means customer satisfaction …

“When you go to your job interviews, they will ask you these things, and now your answer will be right.”

She continues with some words of caution.

“If you knock on the door and there’s a bunch of guys drinking in there, what do you do?”

“Party with them!” Belmares jokes, and the class erupts in laughter.

Robnett laughs, too, and then cautions: “They will ask you to. You say no. If they say, ‘Well, come in and clean anyway,’ you call your supervisor and have another guest-room attendant come to clean with you. Never alone …

“You will be surprised that a lot of guests may offer you money to have sex with them. No. That’s sexual harassment. Report it to security immediately. Be careful. You don’t know these people. Do not risk yourself.”

She tells them about housekeeping gratuity: It varies so widely, you never know what to expect. Some people don’t tip at all. Most people leave a few dollars on the night stand when they check out. Asian tourists tend to put the cash under the pillow. Robnett has known guest-room attendants who draw $20 a shift in tips. Some guests leave casino chips, and some leave much larger amounts of money. The rule is: If it’s more than $100, you must contact your supervisor and treat it as if the guest accidentally left the money, and place it in Lost and Found for a certain time. If the guest does not return for it, the guest-room attendant may claim it.

“Don’t take it if it’s that much,” she says. “Many properties set up tests, to see if you are being honest. Don’t get caught taking it. It’s not worth it.”

•••

After making two beds with crisp corners and throw pillows in less than 10 minutes, Belmares fills a bucket with water in the tub and wipes down the tub and shower. She has three different bottles of cleanser on her cart: glass cleaner, sanitizer and disinfectant. She sprays the mirror and kneels on the counter top to reach the top of the mirror, which has been splashed with water.

She sprays sanitizer in the toilet, which has been dirtied with coffee to simulate filth. She cleans it quickly. Her shoe is untied. No matter.

After cleaning the bathroom, she vacuums. Her finish time is 19 minutes.

Robnett inspects, running her fingers along the edge of the picture frames, looking for dust. Belmares walks beside her, sweat on her brow. Robnett is encouraging: “Good, good, good,” she says as she walks around the room, lifts the duvet up to check the sheets, looks at the arrangement of magazines on the in-room table.

When she inspects the bathroom, she finds a rag left on the back of the toilet.

“Aw!” Belmares says. “I need to spend more time!”

It’s the middle of this second week, and some students have already secured interviews with Caesars Palace.

While practice continues, there’s a buzz about the students who got calls—will they get the job? Will I get called? When do they start? How soon can I make money? Within days, Belmares, Napoles and Mehari all are offered jobs at Caesars Palace. Soon, they will start their jobs as guest-room attendants on the Las Vegas Strip, cleaning for the thousands of tourists who keep the city alive.

“It all starts with the guest-room attendant,” Rappaport says. “My philosophy is that no employee is more important than any other, but the guest-room attendant has one of the most difficult, challenging jobs.

“If you check into your room and the bed is not beautifully made, and the bathroom is not clean, and you’re not in a comfortable environment, the reality is, you’ll probably never come back.”

Follow Stacy J. Willis via RSS. stacy.willis@vegasseven.com

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