For 23 years, Pearlie Mae Chandler has made her living cleaning Washington hotel rooms -- changing soiled linens, scrubbing bathroom floors, cleaning toilets, dusting window sills and emptying trash. Her daughter, Barbara Ashton, has been doing it for four years.
Every workday, they clean 16 rooms apiece. Then, at the end of the week, each takes home about $130 out of a paycheck of $180.
There are 900 hotel maids like Chandler and Ashton in the 6,000-member Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local No. 25, the city's largest union local. And right now they say they are very unhappy.
In the three years since the union signed the last contract with the hotel owners, Chandler and Ashton claim they have watched helplessly as inflation has eaten up their earning power. Now both say they will gladly join their fellow union members on the picket lines at midnight tonight if hotel owners do not increase their offer of an $11-a-week raise for each of the next three years.
"They [hotel owners] complain that they don't have the money," said the 25-year-old Ashton, who has been cleaning rooms for four years at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, on Dupont Circle NW. "Deep in my heart, I know they got the money. These hotels make millions of dollars. We keep the rooms clean. We keep them in business. We deserve more."
"We definitely need a raise," said Chandler, 51, who works in the Harrington Hotel, at 11th and E streets NW. "We need everything we can get. The bus fare's going up. Food's high."
With their limited formal educations and limited earning power, maids such as Chandler and Ashton form the backbone of the union. Yet, even though their union has no strike fund to help them weather payless days on picket lines, and even though a strike will play havoc with whatever financial dreams they may have, they say they see no alternative.
"My husband and I are talking about getting a house," said Ashton, kneeling to scrub around the base of a toilet. They have saved everything they could toward that goal, but even though her husband works two jobs, there still is not enough to take care of their family.
Ashton says they pay $293 a month for their apartment at Seventh and O streets NW, plus $35 a week for the nursery for their 6-year-old daughter. On top of that, she says, they spend $40 to $50 a week on food.
Between November and January, Ashton said, she, like many other hotel maids, are laid-off for various periods of time because, with the annual downturn in tourism and conventions, hotels have less work for them to do.
Those layoffs further complicate their efforts to save for a home, she said.
"Half of the time when I get laid off, I can't draw unemployment," she said. "By the time, I fill out the papers, they [the hotels] call you back for one or two days. Then you don't make but about $34 a day. Your bills are backed up. Then you have to work a week before you get paid."
When Chandler started working at the Harrington Hotel 23 years ago, she worked in the laundry. Later, she began cleaning rooms -- and took home about $80 a week to help her and her husband support their eight children.
But that was not enough, and today she works two full-time jobs to make ends meet. Six days a week, Chandler leaves her home at Eighth and Rittenhouse streets NW just before midnight to report to her cleaning job at the Cannon Office Building. At 6 a.m., she punches out, takes a brief nap, and then five days a week heads for her job at the Harrington.
She arrives there about 7:30 a.m., puts on her green uniform, eats breakfast and heads to the fourth floor for cleaning duty.
There, she gets her cart, with her cleaning equipment and a large green trash bag, and loads it with clean sheets and towels. Then she is assigned a list of rooms to clean. By 8:30 a.m., she is cleaning her first room, pushing the cart down the worn hallway carpet.
At just about the same moment, over at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, Chandler's daughter, who began helping her mother clean rooms at the Harrington when she dropped out of school in the ninth grade, is also busily cleaning rooms on the fourth floor.