Muriel Bowser does hotel housekeeper’s work for a morning

Muriel Bowser has tangled with political foes on the D.C. Council dais and, recently, on the campaign trail with fellow mayoral hopefuls. But before Tuesday, never had the Democratic nominee done battle with a duvet cover.

Bowser spent an hour Tuesday morning in a 10th-floor guest room at the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown, joining housekeeper Juanita King on her daily rounds. She spent a good portion of that time wrangling a comforter into its cover, then again after King noticed a spot, forcing them to start from scratch.

“Those duvets are hard,” said Bowser, who confessed that her 18-month mayoral campaign had undermined her personal bed-making schedule. King sympathized: “They are frustrating at times.”

Bowser’s housekeeper-for-a-day stint was organized by UNITE HERE Local 25, the union representing employees at the Marriott and numerous other hotels in the Washington area. When Bowser won the union’s endorsement last month, political director Sam Epps said, some of its members invited her to get a firsthand look at their jobs.

Inviting a potential mayor to change sheets and spray toilets shows “how tedious and hard cleaning rooms is,” Epps said.

See theoretical scenarios for how Bowser and Catania could win the mayoral race.

But it can be rewarding. As a new hire, King makes $13.53 an hour; by next April, Epps said, she will make $18.80 an hour under the union’s contract, which also includes fully paid health benefits and a retirement plan.

“We want elected officials to understand what union jobs can do for people in their lives,” Epps said. “We’re creating middle-class jobs here.”

King’s current wage is above the 75th percentile for housekeeper wages nationally, according to 2013 statistics gathered by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A wage of $18 an hour would be above the 90th percentile.

King’s day started at 6:30 a.m., stepping out of her Southeast Washington apartment and onto a Metrobus, where she met Bow­ser for the short ride to the Anacostia Metro station. The two walked into the hotel using the back entrance and changed clothes — King into her uniform, Bowser into a dark sweatsuit — in time for an 8 a.m. roll call.

“Take care of yourself, take care of each other and have a blessed day,” said Lewis Nelson, the Marriott’s director of service, sending a dozen housekeepers out to their day’s work.

After preparing a surprisingly heavy housekeeping cart, King and Bowser started in a 10th-floor double — one of 30 rooms vacated that day and due for a full set of clean linens and a top-to-bottom cleaning. What should have been a half-hour’s work stretched into an hour, thanks mostly to the pack of photographers and reporters observing, but also because of Bowser’s perfectionism.

“It can be a little neater,” Bow­ser said before refolding a flat sheet. “I can do better. . . . See? That’s a hospital corner.”

The daughter of a public-school facilities manager and a registered nurse, Bowser, 42, grew up in a working-class family but has spent most of her professional career in office jobs. After a morning’s work — three rooms, all full “checkouts” — she joined King and several other of the hotel’s 500-plus employees in a basement cafeteria.

King, a 48-year-old mother of five, spoke frankly throughout the day about her crack addiction, her HIV-positive status and a 13-month prison term for drug dealing. But she said six years of sobriety and a good-paying job have her contemplating a new life.

When she worked more than a decade ago as a housekeeper at motels in Virginia, where she did not belong to a union, King said she never made more than $7 an hour, forcing her to work a second job at McDonald’s.

“I never thought I would be able to make this much,” she said. “My kids think I’m a millionaire, they really do. . . . I’m just saving up to make that deposit on that home.”

But King said she hoped that a new mayor might help her with the latest challenges she’s faced — in particular, the inability to secure an apartment of her own because of her bad personal credit. “When it comes to talking about a home for me and my children, that’s the down part for me,” she said. “Where do the second chances come in?”

Bowser said that hearing King’s story reinforced her campaign priorities of creating and preserving affordable housing and stressed the importance of the city pursuing economic-development projects that employ city residents. The Marriott Marquis was built with $272 million in city financing; the adjacent Walter E. Washington Convention Center represents about $800 million in public investment.

“We need to build more hotels,” Bowser half-joked, saying she would put an emphasis on creating “sustainable jobs” as mayor.

“It’s hard work, for sure,” Bow­ser said of her housekeeping duties. King “still has a long way to go before she gets to where she needs to be. But a good job with a good company is a start.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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