Employees at the Harvard-owned DoubleTree Suites have picketed, protested, and demanded fair process for the past year and a half. This means that they would like to consider unionizing without losing their jobs. Hilton Hotels manages the property, and has refused to listen to workers’ petitions, employees say. DoubleTree employees have called on Harvard to intercede. The university essentially replied ‘thanks but no thanks’ in a letter last May, despite the fact that all hotel workers who have chosen to join a union in Boston or Cambridge since 1999 have used a similar process.
Employees see a stated lack of fair process as a roadblock to improving their work environment and their lives.
“It’s about respect. It’s about being treated like human beings, not only like machines for work,’’ said Delmy Lemus, a housekeeper at the Harvard DoubleTree for six years. She is one of the organizers of the movement. “We are doing more work than we used to. It’s the work of three people but one person does it.’’
This kind of alleged overwork prompted the housekeepers to produce “Our Pain, Harvard’s Gain,’’ a report detailing the factors that have lead Harvard’s DoubtleTree employees to experience work-related illness or injury at a rate 75 percent higher than other Massachusetts hotel employees doing similar work.
The report points toward factors such as the heavy new sofa beds purchased in 2008, as well as the pace at which housekeepers must clean; Harvard DoubleTree workers clean 14 two-room suites per day, whereas most unionized properties in Boston hold workers accountable for 15 single rooms or allow suites to count double.
“All my pregnancy, I was doing the job of three housekeepers,’’ Lemus said. “They were supposed to add more help and they never did. The doctor always gave me letters saying I can’t lift more than 10 or 20 pounds. They got the letters, they said ‘Yeah okay,’ but they didn’t let me do less work.’’
This kind of anecdote has given the movement legs, inspiring some Harvard students to voice their opinions.
“I began hearing stories from friends who were involved. I listened to accounts of horrific pain and the ways that pain was being neglected,’’ Harvard Freshman Nina Wagner told Boston.com. “Workers brought several physicians notes, but their assignments weren’t changed at all. That human experience of severe pain is unacceptable. And that Harvard owns and profits from it really touched me to get involved.’’
Undergraduate and graduate students like Wagner have shown their support for the DoubleTree employees by joining in pickets and petitioning for a hotel boycott.
“We all agree that in the United States and at Harvard we have an obligation to ensure that workers are treated safely and fairly. A tremendous amount of students have signed the petition to boycott the hotel. Harvard’s Undergraduate Council and Graduate Council have endorsed it as well,’’ said Wagner.
Protestors launched an art installation in Harvard Yard, educating passersby about the grueling work that DoubleTree workers perform daily. In a more light-hearted manner of generating awareness, housekeepers challenged Harvard students to make a bed in the center of campus.
“We have Harvard students giving us support, working with us, doing demonstrations to let Harvard know that they are with us. Without the students I don’t know what we would do. They are very strong and are always giving us support. The fight doesn’t feel as lonely,’’ said Lemus.
People beyond Harvard’s community have joined the effort, too. Last week, a roundtable event took place on Harvard’s campus to facilitate conversation between workers, city councilors, and members of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which launched an investigation of DoubleTree employee claims on October 15.
“We were distressed and disturbed by the workers’ stories. We want to support their right to organize. This is not something that Harvard can or should turn a blind eye to,’’ said Boston Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley. She added, “I expect them to not just have big brains but big hearts.’’
Pressley told Boston.com she is working with other elected officials, notably Boston and Cambridge City Councilors Michelle Wu and Denise Simmons, as well as Unite Local 26, the organizing force behind the movement. The goal is to get informed about the workers’ challenges in order to properly advocate on their behalf, she said.
Pressley has no desire to shame or demonize Harvard, she said. She intends to appeal to Harvard President Drew Faust through grassroots action and urge Faust to do the right thing, both from a moral and business standpoint.
Despite the rallying of students and local officials, Harvard has declined to get involved.
“Harvard is not the employer of the employees in question, and therefore is not a party to the unionization process,’’ wrote Kevin Casey, Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications for Harvard University, in a statement to Boston.com.
His statement noted the importance of employer and employees agreeing on a process, but that the university would not intervene in that decision-making. His words echo a letter to the General Manager of the DoubleTree last July, in which he wrote, “…Harvard continues to encourage both Hilton and its employees to adopt a procedure that results in a fair election process…’’
Those fighting for DoubleTree employees are frustrated by the university’s neutral statements.
“It’s disappointing. They claim lack of knowledge or lack of involvement, which is pretty hard for them to claim given that we’ve told them so much. They make over $20 million dollars per year off the hotel, and they are responsible for the management they contract,’’ said Wagner.
With an investigation underway, the support of city councilors, and another rally planned in upcoming weeks, the DoubleTree employees and their supporters hope that something changes soon.
“If my schedule will allow it, I’ll absolutely be at the rally,’’ said Pressley. “I’ll be there until there is a favorable resolution. We’re going to continue to lobby Harvard until they agree to be partners and take responsibility for the hotel that they own.’’
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article may have inadvertently implied Harvard University officially stated “thanks but no thanks’’ in a letter to DoubleTree Suites employees on May 8, 2013.