Linda Reid was excited to get back to exploring the country this spring as COVID-19 cases dropped, but the Oregon resident was surprised to discover one major change as she returned to travel: less housekeeping.
During a four-night stay in Wisconsin in August, Reid said she had to make a stop at the front desk three times for items like shampoo and towels.
"You'd have to take the time to go down and come to the desk or call somebody when you need something," she said. "If you’re down there for several days, the room starts to get a little dirty."
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It’s a familiar scene at hotels across the country, as more brands shift to an "opt-in" housekeeping policy that limits housekeeping services due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say the absence of daily housekeeping will likely be a permanent change at some properties.
There are various incentives for hotels to nix their old housekeeping policies, including a labor shortage in the hospitality industry, the opportunity to improve profit margins and a desire to accommodate guest preferences.
Hospitality experts say housekeeping staff numbers may never return to pre-pandemic levels, a prediction that concerns union representatives for a group of employees largely made up of people of color.
"We are changing permanently, I believe," said Mehmet Erdem, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ hospitality department. "Maybe not at a five-star, five-diamond stay, but in your economy to mid-scale segment of hotels, I think it will be very normal to see not having daily housekeeping."
Why did hotels ditch daily housekeeping?
The opt-in housekeeping policy, which avoids daily housekeeping unless a guest requests more frequent service, took off last year as hotels pushed updated health and safety strategies.
Wyndham Hotels’ website says guest room housekeeping is "kept to a minimum unless otherwise requested." Guests at Marriott can choose their preferred housekeeping service frequency during their stay. Best Western offers daily housekeeping by request. And Hilton announced in July that it would only offer daily housekeeping upon request at its non-luxury properties.
Hospitality experts don’t see these policies going away any time soon.
"I think hotels, at least in the near term or for as long as they can, are going to make (housekeeping available) by request because one, it saves money, and two, they’re really hurting for staff," said Patrick Scholes, a lodging analyst for Truist Securities, a corporate and investment banking company.
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The advice reflects health experts’ current understanding of how the virus spreads, according to John Lowe, assistant vice chancellor and professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
A space with adequate, updated ventilation could clear the room of any potential virus within minutes of housekeeping leaving, Lowe said. But if an infected staff member breathes or coughs into a hotel room with a poor ventilation system, the virus could linger for hours.
And while some guests prefer daily housekeeping, surveys show that there are others who would rather see fewer staff visits.
Nearly 9 in 10 frequent travelers surveyed in August 2020 said they would feel more comfortable if hotels limited housekeeping to "by request only," according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the American Hotel and Lodging Association – a hospitality industry trade group – that surveyed 2,200 American adults.
"Housekeeping isn’t a big deal to me," said Robert Decorte, a traveler from Michigan. Decorte has noticed that it takes longer for staff to fulfill requests for towels but otherwise hasn’t minded less housekeeping.
Diana Burns, a traveler from North Dakota, said the new policies don't bother her either, even though she wants a clean room during longer trips. She made sure her sheets were changed once during a recent seven-day trip to San Antonio.
"We did not expect or need fresh towels on the daily," she said. "I have a lot of leniencies. The housekeeping’s busy, they're understaffed just like everybody else."
Phil Cordell, Hilton's senior vice president of brand development, said the company pivoted to the opt-in housekeeping model after it discovered guests "enjoyed the flexibility," and continue to have varying levels of comfort housekeeping entering their rooms after check-in.
The new policies come as hotel companies struggle to build back the workforce numbers that were slashed in 2020.
Job openings in the leisure and hospitality space have skyrocketed this year, with more than 1.7 million estimated as of August compared with less than 1 million in August 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Hiring efforts have ramped up to match the growing travel demand, but studies show former workers laid off during the pandemic may be leaving the industry for good.
A survey of more than 30,000 job seekers from job search platform Joblist found nearly two-fifths of former hospitality workers want to leave the industry permanently, with most saying they would rather work in an office setting. Others cited hospitality’s low pay and a lack of benefits.
Lourdes Cortes, a housekeeper at Hilton’s Drake Hotel in Chicago, said the work can be especially challenging now that housekeepers aren’t limiting the buildup of trash through daily cleanings.
Instead of cleaning a mix of up to 15 occupied and check-out rooms each day, she said her job now has her cleaning up to 12 check-out rooms, which require more work after going days without cleaning.
"It's like working twice or three times as hard as before the pandemic," Cortes, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator.
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The 52-year-old said she has pain in her hands and feet from lifting trash and scrubbing tubs that have gone days without cleaning, adding that there are fewer housekeepers on staff these days to divide the work.
Other housekeepers weren't willing to talk on the record for fear of retribution, but several told USA TODAY that the industry needs to acknowledge housekeepers more. They pointed out the pay disparities between housekeepers and other hotel roles such as front desk employees, despite the demanding work housekeepers can face on the job.
"Many of my co-workers, they feel like they don't want to work," Cortes said. "We're working in pain. ... So it's very sad for those of us who are working and for those of us who (are waiting to get called back)."
Cordell said Hilton hotels are "actively hiring" and called the labor issue "the single biggest issue for our industry."
'The housekeeping model isn’t going to change' for luxury resorts
Despite the alleged health benefits of limited housekeeping, the policy changes aren’t taking place in luxury properties.
Guests at Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and LXR luxury brands will automatically receive daily housekeeping, and Marriott said guests at luxury hotels will receive daily housekeeping unless otherwise directed by the guest.
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Bank of America analyst Shaun Kelley expects any potential housekeeping shifts will take place at hotels with fewer than four stars.
"If you’re a full-service hotel, the housekeeping model isn’t going to change much," he said.
Even if the new cleaning policies aren't universal, the changes worry Unite Here, a union representing more than 300,000 workers in hospitality and other industries in the U.S. and Canada.
Union president D Taylor argues that getting rid of daily housekeeping would hurt workers; a June report from the union estimated that the end of daily room cleanings in U.S. hotels could permanently eliminate up to 180,917 jobs and lead to $4.8 billion in lost wages each year for a role that is filled 73% by people of color.
"They said they didn’t want to do housekeeping because of health and safety," Taylor told USA TODAY. "If that’s the case, why are you saying there’s daily housekeeping … at the high-end places?"
Kelley noted that limiting daily housekeeping would help hotel operators cut operating expenses.
"The most substantial change you can make to a hotel operation is in housekeeping because that is the bulk of your cost for any hotel that’s not a major full-service convention hotel," Kelley said.
But this isn’t the first time hotel companies have taken steps to reduce housekeeping services.
In October 2018, Marriott union workers held a strike against changes like the company's "Make a Green Choice," a program that offers guests rewards points or other perks to forego housekeeping services. Marriott has since cut the program.
Opt-in housekeeping 'will likely persist'
So what will housekeeping look like, post-pandemic? Cleaning policies will vary across companies and brands, but experts say opt-in housekeeping will be a permanent feature for some properties.
Hilton President and CEO Christopher Nassetta said last month the company would be adding an option to opt-in or opt-out of housekeeping on its app "very soon."
"We're not taking (daily housekeeping) away. We're just giving them a choice and control," he said during the Skift Global Forum in September.
Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano told investors in August that the company will try to balance guest expectations and "financial realities," and guests can expect housekeeping protocols to shift as they move up or down the quality tiers.
"More customer control over the guest experience is probably here to stay and will likely persist for many years past the pandemic," Vik Krishnan, a partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How COVID-19 changed hotels: Is this the end of daily housekeeping?