David Bacon Stories & Photographs


"We Made them Millions, and they Complain About Insurance"
Lupe Chavez, a housekeeper at the San Francisco Hilton, tells her story to David Bacon
TruthOut Perspective

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (9/18/09) -- I was born in Santa Tecla, near San Salvador. My father was a big rig driver and my mother was a stay at home mom. We had a big family -- four brothers and two sisters. When I was old enough, I worked in the Armando Araujo coffee and soap factory. We Salvadoreños are hard working people.

From the time I was twelve my aunts took me with them whenever they had a demonstration. They were teachers, and taught me that we have to fight for what we need, because that's the only way to achieve anything. Even before the war, it was dangerous to be involved with a union. After the war started, many died protesting.

I was nineteen years old when I came to the U.S. to care for an elderly woman. My family was very poor and when the opportunity came I didn't hesitate. The woman eventually returned to El Salvador, but I stayed on with her family. I thought I was going to earn money and help my family, but they didn't pay me for an entire year. They told me I had to repay the transportation fee and all the money they'd spent on me.

A friend of my grandmother told me I was being treated as a slave. She said she'd rescue me, so I found my passport where they'd hidden it, grabbed my bag and left. But my rescuer took me to another home, to care of another elderly woman. They hardly paid me anything -- just $100 a month. When I said I wanted to go to school, they told me immigration officers would get me.

Finally I met my husband - a carpenter who'd come to put in new windows. He rescued me and we got married. That was 1974, and we've been married ever since. When I married him I no longer felt like a slave.

I already had a Social Security number -- it wasn't so hard to get a number back then - and in 1986 I got my green card through the amnesty. I brought my brothers here too, but I told them that they would never suffer like I did.

In those years we could live in San Francisco because the rent was only $150 for a one-bedroom apartment. Now living in San Francisco is almost impossible, and we moved to the East Bay.

After my first daughter was three I told my husband I wanted to go back to work. I found good daycare and applied at the Hilton. They hired me right away as a housekeeper, the same job I've been doing for 29 years.

Since I've been here for so long I work on only one floor. It's a very big hotel, with three buildings. At the beginning of the day I fill my cart with new linens, towels, pens and everything I'll need. We carry everything from toilet paper to a vacuum cleaner, and the cart easily weighs 100 pounds.

When I get to a room I first organize the hangers in the closet, and make sure it has one pillow and blanket. Then I empty the garbage cans and make the beds. I continue on to the bathroom, clean the tub and toilet, and restock the toilet paper, towels and Kleenex. I clean the mirror, sink and counter - they have to be spotless. It's hard work to clean the mirrors and shower doors because you have to stretch so much to do it.

Making the beds is backbreaking because they're a lot larger now and you have to lift up the mattress. You have to put three sheets on -- the fitted sheet, flat sheet and down comforter. Work wasn't as hard when I first started there because the beds were small with one pillow per bed. Now beds are bigger and some have four pillows. Sometimes guests even ask for four more.

They switched accessories from plastic to silver, which weigh a lot more. We have to lift the ice bucket with both hands to clean it with Windex, soap or sometimes hot water. The garbage cans are also silver. They warn us that they don't want any fingerprints on them, and managers follow us into the rooms to check. It takes an extra half an hour everyday just to clean the silver accessories.

We have to finish all 14 assigned rooms by the end of the day. Some of us don't go on breaks or take shorter lunch breaks in order to finish. Recently I had a room with a big family, but in a room with only one bed. I wasted an extra forty minutes because the room was so messy. At the end of the day I was exhausted. When I got home I just wanted to sleep.

Llike it or not, there is pressure to have the room spotless. I've seen other workers weep because the job is so hard. It's never good enough and managers want more. I've heard them tell housekeepers that they came to the U.S. to work, so they should work harder. They call them crybabies. I tell them it's not right to make women cry - it just makes it harder to do the work. Because I've been there for so long and I'm very outspoken, they don't follow me around, but I feel pressured too.

In the long run you end up with permanent problems working this way. I now have to wear a brace on my arm. When I don't have it on my arms hurt tremendously. I had to go on disability because my tendons hurt so much. When I returned to work I couldn't taken a morning or afternoon break because my legs hurt too much for me to walk down to the break room. I simply stayed up on the floor.

My hands tingle and ache, and my fingers go numb. Sometimes my arms start to hurt during the night and I can't sleep. The pain starts about 3am and I can't stand it. The doctor said I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and gave me two braces, one for each hand. My hands now feel better, but I still use them during the day. I take a motrin pill before leaving for work in the morning and another one in the afternoon and before going to bed. I don't want to be dependent on them, but it's hard. My doctor told me many housekeepers have the same problem. It's very difficult to work in pain. It's something I cannot get used to.

I have to continue working because I need the insurance. If I don't work, I'm not accumulating hours, and my insurance stops. I had to return to work because I had no insurance left. My husband, daughter and myself depend on it. My daughter's nineteen, and she needs medical checkups and to go to the dentist. My husband has high blood pressure and clogged arteries so he needs expensive medication daily.

My back and knees hurt from moving the heavy cart every day. I don't want to get even more injured than I already am because I'll be replaced. There are many workers still working with disabilities right now. It's like a circus in there when we're changing into uniforms. We all smell like Bengay and have braces all over. We all have medical conditions. They say it's the handicap room, because we're all injured.

With the union at least we feel we have someone who will back us up. I was suspended a few years ago. The manager was upset because I had criticized her during a meeting. The other workers were in an uproar. My union representative told the general manager they were going to protest in the lobby. They called me that afternoon to say I could return to work the next morning. We all fight for each other.

Medical insurance is the most important issue for us this year. They're talking of increasing the hours needed to qualify for health benefits. That is what we're trying to avoid. I just have a few years left until I can retire. I'm lost my health at the hotel, and all they think about is money. We made them millions of dollars, and they complain about paying insurance.

Lupe Chavez' union, UNITE HERE Local 2, is currently in negotiations with San Francisco's Class A hotels, and workers and their supporters are again out in the streets. The old contract has expired, and health care benefits are one of the central issues.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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