Hotel housekeeping on demand: Marriott cleaners say this app makes their job harder

It was supposed to make the housekeepers’ jobs easier, their bosses told them.

The iPod they got every morning featured an app that would indicate which rooms they had to clean. They wouldn’t have to worry about losing the piece of paper where they kept track of their day. They wouldn’t have to dial a code into the room telephone to let the front desk know the room was done. Now, they could just press a button.

But two years later, housekeepers at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, who are working to unionize with Unite Here, say the new tool, which allows managers to give them room assignments on-demand, has actually made their job harder. It takes away their ability to organize their day and makes the work more physically demanding, as it sends them zigzagging across the hotel floors.

Their experience shows how workers can be left out of the narrative when industry leaders champion needed tech solutions.

When they had paper schedules, Kat Payne, a housekeeper at the Marriott for the last eight years, had her days down to a science.

She knew that occupied rooms were quicker to clean than checked-out rooms, and that guests who left for the day appreciated their rooms being cleaned by the time they returned. So she’d finish the occupied rooms in the morning and focus on the checkouts afterward.

That’s not possible anymore. Housekeepers have to follow the assignments given on the app, known in-house as “Rex,” the original name for what’s now called HotSOS Housekeeping by tech company Amadeus. Often, that means doing occupied rooms much later in the day — and guests sometimes get upset and complain to management, wondering why the housekeeper has skipped their room even though the guests had seen them cleaning rooms on the floor all day.

It’s hard to face them, Payne said, but what can she say — that the app made her do it?

“We have to take the heat,” she said.

The app also usually gives at most a few assignments at a time, so there’s no way to plan a route, which housekeepers said was particularly important at the Marriott, the city’s biggest hotel, spanning a whole city block. Now, with the app, Payne and her coworkers find themselves pushing their carts, heavy with linens and towels and toiletries, back and forth on thick carpet from one end of the hotel to the other.

“You’re chained to your cart with blinders on,” said Payne, a mother of two who lives in East Oak Lane and works nights at a bar on North Broad Street.

How apps are making hotels more productive

Marriott’s corporate headquarters did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

But there are obvious benefits to choosing a tool like this.

The app offers management more control over what housekeepers are doing and when they do it, which is crucial to a business model that’s unpredictable: When someone could walk in at any moment looking for a room, the amount of time it takes to flip a room and get it ready can make or break a booking. And if your workers are dispersed all over a 23-floor hotel, it’s not easy to get in touch with them immediately. (Payne says that in the pre-iPod days, they’d call her cell if they needed to rush a room.)

An app also allows a hotel to collect data on its workforce: With HotSOS, where housekeepers press one button when they begin cleaning a room and another when they finish, the Marriott can track how long it takes to clean a room and can tweak its workflow as necessary.

Tech companies have recognized this demand. In 2013, Amadeus, the maker of HotSOS, bought hotel software company Newmarket in a $500 million deal.

Camera icon Juliana Reyes / Staff
Marriott Downtown workers marched past their workplace to raise awareness for their union campaign on June 27.

In the summer of 2016, Greg Larson, chief financial officer of Host Hotels & Resorts, which owns a minority stake in the Marriott Downtown and three dozen other Marriotts around the country, told analysts and investors that Host was working on increasing productivity by implementing tech tools that would “save on time and labor expense while getting guests into rooms faster.” A year later on an earnings call, he reported that productivity was up and referenced how a tech tool was resulting in “more efficient deployment of housekeeping labor.”

But even if a tech tool or platform does make work more efficient for everyone, there are often “hidden off-loaded costs,” said Julia Ticona, a Data and Society Research Institute scholar who focuses on how technology intersects with work.

Take flexibility, for example. With the iPod, management has more control to give room assignments on the fly. That comes at the expense of housekeepers’ flexibility to determine how they’ll organize their day.

“Somebody’s got to give to allow for flexibility to happen,” she said. “It isn’t just created out of thin air.”

Tech tools also tend toward standardization, Ticona said, not leaving a lot of wiggle room for unpredictability. But these jobs are inherently unpredictable, as housekeepers deal with people’s whims and habits and moods.

What the app doesn’t know

There are some things that only a worker on the front lines would know.

Edith Santos, a 72-year-old who’s been with the Marriott for 24 years, says that if she saw a guest leave their room in the morning, she’d know that she could get in and clean. But she’s not allowed to do that anymore — she has to follow the app. And there’s no way for the app to know if a guest has left for the day, which means it might give housekeepers an assignment at the other end of the floor, only for them to knock on the door and find that the guest wants them to come back later.

When WiFi doesn’t work? That’s the worst, the housekeepers said. Marisol Mendez says that she knows the dead zones on her floor and that she has to walk away to get a signal.

And in a job like theirs, Mendez says, every move counts: They’re getting on their hands and knees countless times throughout the day to clean under the sink, check under the bed for trash, and detail the floors in the bathroom, because they don’t use mops — just rags. So something small, like traveling to one room that’s a little farther away, takes a toll. Mendez says she returns to her home in North Philly every evening feeling “beat up.”

Chantal Boeckman, a spokesperson for housekeeping app maker Amadeus, said that each hotel can adapt the app to fit its needs and that it offers to send staffers to hotels to help them tailor the tool.

Mendez and coworkers Santos and Payne say they hope the union will give them a voice with management, a way to talk about how the app sometimes hurts their ability to do a good job.

Payne takes pride in her work. She said she loves striving for the “Marriott standard” with every room she cleans and providing the best customer service — that’s why she loves working her second job as a bartender, too.

She hopes she and her coworkers can get “a fair process” around unionizing — “so we can love our jobs again.”