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Snooping skills outshine polishing skills for our mismatched housekeeper

Watch the video...



Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan cleans a toilet as part of his job as a hotel housekeeper.
Photos by Sara Tramiel/Review-Journal.

Levitan cleans a bathroom countertop under the guidance of Zulema Polanco. Polanco has worked in housekeeping at Arizona Charlie's for about six months and cleans about 17 rooms a day.

The final step in cleaning a hotel room is vacuuming.

Levitan makes an unsuccessful attempt to make a bed. Polanco ends up doing the task correctly. Our reporter exits his stint as housekeeper after learning he was slowing the employee down.


Zulema Polanco has just finished showing me how much more thoroughly the rooms at Arizona Charlie's Decatur need to be cleaned than I thought. She even inspected a cup of water on the sink, for contact lenses, before emptying and tossing it.

"Now," says the 30-year-old Las Vegan, "we're done." She presses a code into the phone that indicates the room is clean and vacant.

A hunch tells me to open the empty-feeling ice bucket, however.

Aha! We almost missed a plastic wrapper from the top of a water bottle. Polanco is embarrassed.

This is the proudest moment possible for a man to have while scrubbing the toilets of strangers and dressed in a maid's uniform. (All 14 guest-room attendants here are women. "No men ever apply," hotel director Alina Bradley told me. "It's too hard a job for them.")

Las Vegas is the housekeeping capital of the world, employing 21,499 hotel-tidying professionals, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

Most are female, from minority groups and work like dogs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They clean between eight to 17 rooms each day, depending on the square footage. (It's 17 rooms at Arizona Charlie's, or one every 24.7 minutes.) Every bed must be made, dresser drawer opened and wiped, and toilet and bathtub scrubbed shiny. Even the toilet paper ends require work: three precise folds to get them into those neat little points.

"It's dirty and really, really hard," Polanco says. "When you finish work, you're so tired."

Hotel housekeeping jobs are characterized by "increasing repetitive physical workloads, low income, low skill utilization, low job control, increasing use of contingency employment, and virtually no prospects for training and career advancement," according to a 2002 report commissioned by Culinary Local 226.

"I like my job," Polanco says nevertheless, "especially because I do different things."

Actually, she does the same thing. Every day. Over and over.

"But it's different rooms," Polanco corrects me.

Maids at Arizona Charlie's earn $9 an hour plus about $5 to $10 tips per day.

"Most people don't even leave a dollar," Polanco says. (On the Strip, unionized maids start at about $4 more per hour plus benefits, but the tips are just as disappointing, according to a spokesman for the Culinary union.)

"And when (the room) is really dirty," Polanco continues, shaking her head, "they leave nothing."

Used condoms are a common sight, as is blood.

"If it's something little on the towels or blankets, we clean it up," Polanco says.

Blood on the floor or mattress — or in "Sopranos" quantities — must be reported to a supervisor, who then decides whether to bring in William Petersen and the cast of "CSI." (Polanco reports no reportable amount of blood in her six months here.)

"Not that way," Polanco tells me.

My ice bucket victory is short-lived. I'm trying to force my limited knowledge of fitted bottom sheets onto flat ones, randomly wedging the leftover cotton blend under the mattress in room 4328.

Cleaning and I are not close friends. As a kid, I was looked after by my own personal maid. (At least that's how my mother described herself while yelling at me.) As a bachelor, trails of dirty socks were the best gauge of my location in any given room.

"How many rooms so far?" housekeeper Maria Elena asks as I wait for my eggs on our 10:30 a.m. break. Elena and eight other maids are sitting, all in a row, at the same long table in the employee cafeteria. They're waving and chuckling at me.

I tell her 16 out of 17.

"If you cleaned that fast," she replies, "you didn't clean the rooms good."

"If you cleaned that fast," another housekeeper interrupts, "I want you to clean my house!"

The breaks are the best part of a maid's day.

"It's where we talk about our lives," Polanco says.

So I ask about hers. Polanco hails from a Mexican village near Guadalajara. She has lived in Las Vegas for 13 years. Other than motherhood, she says, she has never had a dream.

"Nothing," she says.

Polanco's last job was selling jewelry at a retail store. She quit because the 10-hour days took too much of a personal toll.

"I needed to spend more time with my children," she says.

Polanco and her husband, a construction worker, have two boys, ages 9 and 11, and another child on the way. She is scrubbing bathrooms, pushing carts and inhaling cleaning chemicals while eight months pregnant.

"I usually wear a mask for checkouts," she says. (Checkouts are rooms that have recently been vacated. They must be more thoroughly cleaned than stayovers, or rooms that still are occupied.)

The only slack pregnancy cuts Polanco is not getting assigned any smoking rooms, which also are harder to clean.

"It's not good for me to breathe in there," she says.

"Housekeeping!" I announce through the locked door of room 4322, the next one on our list whose doorknob does not display a "do not disturb" sign. (Supervisors assign maids a new room for every sign they report.)

No one answers, so I open the door with my universal key card, announcing "hello!" as proscribed.

Besides break time, the only remotely fun aspect of this job is the snoop factor. There's no need to wait for a house party to peek into someone else's medicine cabinet.

The occupant of this room uses something called Hair ReGro, while the silver tiara in 4323 suggests a particularly fun recent night. (It reads "Thunder Down Under.") And the desk in 4325 is covered in thousands of grocery coupons, arranged like newspaper clippings in a mass murderer's shrine to his victims. (I may have been a maid for only three hours, but this does not seem like a strong indicator of a good tip when this guest checks out.)

Touching personal stuff is verboten, of course. Just a wallet on a bed, for instance, renders that bed unmakable.

"You can only change the pillowcases," Polanco says.

But noticing personal stuff is encouraged.

"If the guest says, 'Oh, you cleaned my room and I lost something,' you need to remember," Polanco explains.

"Hello?" a voice interrupts us.

It belongs to Martha Fausto, whose name tag reads "inspectress." It's her job to inspect every checkout that has been cleaned. In this one, I've made the left bed, Polanco the right. Other than the appearance of concealing a dead body, my bed looks terrific.

"It's really bad," Fausto says, shaking her head. "Really bad."

Polanco has to redo it.

"By this time, I should have made seven rooms," she says, pointing out that we're only on the fourth because of my "help."

I take the hint. And I can't think of too many other times in life when leaving a woman who's eight months pregnant to scrub toilets, inhale toxic chemicals and move a heavy cart by herself is the right thing to do.


Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.




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