For Maids In Manhattan, Unseemly Sights On The Job

May 18, 2011

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's recent arrest is prompting other hotel maids to share stories of fending off men who approached them.

Strauss-Kahn was arrested Saturday on charges of raping a housekeeper in a hotel near Times Square in Manhattan.

Other hotel housekeepers say they've also found themselves facing problematic situations that — while not necessarily outright sexual harassment — have left them feeling uncomfortable.

On WNYC, an NPR member station in New York City, host Brian Lehrer opened the phone lines to hotel housekeepers during his morning program over two days.

Vivian Vasconcellos, who called in from Bronxville, N.Y., described this experience: "He was this old guy; he was a regular. While in the room he used to leave the door open, not wide open, but a little bit open with a porno movie on. He knew we were there, cleaning the other room, and we could see that he was naked."

Although most people's ideas of a hotel housekeeper might come from the movies like the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, the reality is a lot more grueling. Most hotels in New York are unionized and housekeepers make between $15 and $20 an hour. But according to Reneta McCarthy, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, it's a very physical job. Housekeepers might do 14 to 18 rooms a day, spending about 25 minutes per room.

"Typically," she says, "the sheets the housekeepers are dealing with are not fitted sheets, so they have to pick up the mattress, and tuck them under, and tuck blankets. Those king size mattress are heavy; the queen size mattresses are heavy; they are vacuuming every room; they are scrubbing tubs, toilets, cleaning the bathroom floor."

When McCarthy would interview applicants, she would tell them the job was pretty much the equivalent of working a construction job.

McCarthy believes sexual harassment is much less prevalent than most people suspect.

'Acting Like They Might Act At Home'

None of the housekeepers who called the radio program said these things happened all the time, but Kathryn Carrington of Jersey City, N.J., who worked for the Grand Hyatt for about 30 years, says there were perhaps a dozen incidents in those years. Men would make passes at her, she says.

"If I am in the room, I just hurry up and leave them," she adds. "Some of them would come up with towels around them, and plan to be dropping the towels. I would just go outside to the car and tell my supervisor I will go back to the room later, but I would like someone to be there with me, you know to escort me there."

Several housekeepers who called said the guests saw them as desperate, as if they were lucky to be approached and even acknowledged — the housekeepers were there for the guest's pleasure and needs.

McCarthy says she came across only one serious sexual harassment experience during her years of work in hotels.

"But remember," she says, "when a housekeeper comes to clean your room it's a personal experience. I mean, somebody is coming into your bathroom and touching your belongings, and making the bed, after you have slept in it. So for someone to open the door, and have a towel wrapped around their waist, I think the person is acting like they might act at home."

But of course they aren't. So perhaps there is a little confusion about boundaries here. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit