A good bill? Hold on to your sheets

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comAugust 20, 2011 

The headline on the news release was irresistible: The government, it said, wants to tell motel owners whether to use fitted sheets or flat sheets.

The libertarian DNA that courses through my body began to thrum like Randy Travis at an Austin City Limits gig. My eyes grew hazy, then cleared, and I saw before me, in bright neon lights, the words “BIG GOVERNMENT RUNS AMOK!”

This one was almost too easy for a guy like me who loves to take on bureaucracies that tell ordinary schmoes what color to paint their house and how high their backyard fence should be.

Then that other thing that flows through my bloodstream began raising a ruckus — the reporter thing that says, “Hey, there may be more to this than meets the eye. Check it out.”

That pesky journalist refrain. It never lets my knee have any fun jerking!

So, grumbling, I looked up the legislation, SB 432, and its supporting documentation.

And wouldn’t you know it, there is indeed more to the story.

At the base, it’s not about big government. It’s about the women who clean up after you stay in a motel or hotel.

These women — and they are mostly women — clean between 25 and 30 rooms per day, according to a legislative analysis. In each of them, they must lift heavy mattresses to change flat sheets, which is tougher on their backs than using fitted sheets.

Not surprisingly, “this requirement leads to increased rates of back and shoulder injuries,” the analyst writes, citing a 2010 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Hotel workers, the analysis says, have an injury rate 25 percent higher than all other service sector workers, and housekeepers have the highest rate of injury: 50 percent higher than all other hotel workers.

We are not talking here about a small number of people. The study counted 1.8 million workers in the nation’s hospitality industry, of which housekeepers make up 25 percent.

That’s 450,000 women who are wrecking their backs or, as the study dryly put it, sustaining muscular-skeleto and lumbar injuries brought about by aerobic strain, repetitive movement, high static muscular loads and a high frequency of stooping.

It’s not just the sheets, either. This bill addresses what I call the “short-handled mop.”

The “lack of long-handled cleaning tools including, but not limited to mops” forces housekeepers to “clean … up to 32 bathroom floors on their hands and knees in a single shift.”

More back problems, obviously, in addition to which the housekeepers sometimes can’t reach high places with the short mop and may stand on the edge of tubs or furniture to make the place pristine for the paying clients.

The short-handled mop brings to mind my days as a young reporter in Calexico, when Cesar Chavez would routinely excoriate the “short-handled hoe” that American growers made their mostly Mexican workers use. That, too, destroyed the backs of hard-working men and women.

We pause here to ask if those who at first ridiculed this bill are still sneering. I’m not.

Back to the column. Bringing in Chavez is not as out of context as it might seem. The people victimized by the short-handled mop and hoe and the flat sheets have a few things in common.

First of all, they are powerless people. They are working in an industry where their bosses know they can easily be replaced. Some, let’s face it, are working in the U.S. illegally, and that makes them even less powerful.

Second, they are doing jobs that the xenophobes who rail about illegal immigration wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, or a short-handled 2-foot pole, for that matter.

So why wouldn’t the powerful public relations firm that is denigrating “ridiculous AB 432” make fun of it? Why wouldn’t upper middle-class and connected political writers let the firm lead it around by the nose? What do they have to lose? Who’s to complain? Motel housekeepers have no clout.

Has Kathy Fairbanks at Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks, a public relations firm leading the attack on this bill, ever changed a sheet? Have any of the pols having sport with this bill ever spoken to a person who makes beds for a living and considers herself lucky to have the job?

Do they even know anyone like that? Not likely.

We won’t ask about hotel owners. For them, this is about money.

Even after all this research, however, I still found myself having qualms about the government telling people how to run a business in this kind of detail. I don’t like it. And yet, I feel very bad for the housekeepers.

So I ask myself, what is the alternative to government intrusion?

Why, we could just leave it up to the tourist industry for whom Fairbanks is shilling.

I can picture them now, weighing the possible negative effect on their bottom line against the health of the low-income women who work for them. Gee, I wonder how they would come down on the issue.

And as for the plutocrat politicians who are trying to score points on the aching backs (literally) of some of the least powerful among us — well, I would say shame on you — if I thought they were capable of shame.

Reach Bob Cuddy at bcuddy@thetribunenews.com.

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