The human rights crisis in Music City's booming hotel industry

The hospitality industry is booming in the tourist center of Nashville, Tennessee, with 39 hotels currently under development, according to Nashville Business Journal's Crane Watch. Most of the hotels being built are either upscale or upper midscale.

But the people who do the hard and sometimes dangerous work of keeping Music City's hotels clean — predominantly women of color, and increasingly immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa — are being excluded from the boom's economic windfall.

So finds a new report from Workers' Dignity/Dignidad Obrera, a member-led group of primarily Latino and black low-wage workers that takes direct action for economic justice. Produced with research support from scholars at Vanderbilt University, "Hotels Shouldn't Hurt: A Preliminary Report on the Health and Human Rights Crisis in Nashville Hospitality" was based on surveys of 52 hotel cleaning workers in Davidson County, Tennessee, between November 2014 and March 2015 as part of the group's Campaign for Just Hospitality.

Among the report's findings:

  • Nearly 10 percent of those surveyed make less than the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25.
  • 89 percent of those working more than 40 hours a week report not receiving overtime pay.
  • Housekeepers' average wages are $8.36 an hour, well below the $9.54 national median for hotel housekeepers, while those with at least five years of experience average just $8.29 an hour. That's less than Davidson County's living wage for a single adult, below the poverty-level wage for one adult with two children, and about half of the $16.35 wage that the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports is needed to affordably rent a two-bedroom apartment in Davidson County.
  • In some cases, workers report having their wages stolen from them by their employer and being fired or threatened when they try to recover them.
  • 39 percent of workers report receiving no training on workplace safety or toxic cleaning chemicals.
  • 21 percent say their employers don't provide personal protective equipment like gloves and masks.
  • 27 percent of workers say they've been injured on the job and 79 percent of those who have been injured say they were denied emergency medial care.
  • Only 17 percent of workers receive paid sick days while 51 percent say they're not allowed to take sick days at all — even unpaid.

"I was constantly screamed at to go faster," one housekeeper who reported stolen wages and overtime pay at a Midtown Nashville hotel told the researchers. "I was told I was stupid, lazy, and that the manager would hurt my family if I complained."

These troubling conditions are affecting a fast-growing class of workers, as Davidson County reported a 6.7 percent increase in the hospitality workforce in 2014 alone — the fastest growth for any of the country's largest tourism economies. The report notes that a rise in employment through temporary staffing agencies is connected to the nationwide decline in wages and working conditions for hotel housekeepers.

The authors connect current conditions for Nashville's hospitality industry workers to the exploitation of cleaning workers throughout the city's history — from the slaves who cleaned streets during the cotton boom of the 1830s to the black workers who cleaned the city during the Jim Crow era and faced mass retaliatory firings, evictions and even lynchings when they tried to organize.

The report details recent efforts by Nashville's hospitality industry workers to recover stolen wages, end overtime violations, and improve working conditions. It also offers a number of recommendations to improve conditions, including increasing worker-directed enforcement of wage and hour standards and safety rules, and making public financing of hospitality projects contingent on compliance with the Cleaning Workers' Bill of Rights proposed by Workers' Dignity.

"Public money should be contingent on those standards being applied to all cleaning workers who eventually clean those new buildings, with simple accountability measures and clawback agreements to recover public funds from developers who fail to follow through on their commitments," the report concludes.