Hotel housekeepers commute for hours as high rents push them farther away

Fontainebleau hotel housekeeper Odelie Paret climbs out of bed at 4:30 a.m., as she does each weekday, to start her hourlong commute from the faded warehouses of Opa-locka to the well-heeled, island city of Miami Beach. The sky outside her window is still inky black.

She pulls on her black and charcoal maid’s uniform, zips up a gray sweater, gobbles a plate of fish and yams, and swallows her blood pressure pills with a swig of water from the bathroom sink. Then she heads to a dark bus stop across the street.

A half-hour later, the headlights of the No. 27 bus break through the night, illuminating the warehouse behind Paret and the intersection, where earlier, a homeless man was begging cars for change on his knees. Club Climaxxx down the road just let out for the night.

At 62, Paret is a small, stout figure with graying hair in braids — but she’s nimble. When the bus pulls up, she is the only commuter alert enough to extend her hand. She’s quiet for most of the ride, smiling and rolling her eyes for a young man when he starts belting out Boyz II Men: “I will get through the night / And make it through to the other side...”

Paret’s two-bus commute takes her across the 79th Street Causeway to a $15-an-hour, highly physical job, where for 21 years she has been a critical but little-noticed cog in the machine that runs Miami-Dade’s $25 billion tourism industry. Her wages, higher than most Beach hotels thanks to a union contract, support an unemployed daughter in her 30s, a grandson in middle school and family in Haiti.

The 13.5-mile journey between her modest two-bedroom apartment and Miami Beach exemplifies the ugly reality for most in today’s local tourism workforce. Every morning, thousands of hospitality workers like Paret commute for hours to get to the Beach, where a bitter cocktail of exorbitant rents and stagnant wages have pushed workers farther and farther away from the workplace.

This day, her commute lasts 48 minutes. Because the buses are unpredictable, she allows plenty of cushion, meaning she sometimes arrives as much as two hours before her 8:30 a.m. shift begins. In the afternoon, Paret’s commute home on the same buses can take three hours.

For the estimated 11,500 housekeepers who work in Miami-Dade County — most of them in hotels in the Beach — and thousands of other service workers, living near jobs on the billion-dollar sandbar lies far beyond their means. More than 80 percent of the workers employed in Miami Beach don’t live there.

When Paret reaches Collins Avenue, she’s confronted with multimillion-dollar houses and opulent hotels. Even on a good day, the bus trek takes almost twice the time of the average Miami-Dade commute.

She and three other Fontainebleau housekeepers hop off the L bus, Paret’s second, and cross the street to a blue door ajar on the side of the hotel’s white Versailles tower.

No one on the street seems to notice as they slip inside.

Affordability crisis

Two-and-a-half decades ago, before Miami Beach’s renaissance reached full bloom, a housekeeper here might have been able to walk to work from one of the multitude of inexpensive apartments.

No more. At a March meeting of Unite Here Local 355, the only hotel union in Miami-Dade County, a quarter of the dozen Hispanic Fontainebleau housekeepers gathered said they took the bus from as far as Kendall and Southwest Miami-Dade. Most said their commutes lasted about two hours — four times the average commute in Miami-Dade County of about 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many arrive long before hotel guests wake up and leave before guests return for the evening.

“Hotel workers are an invisible engine in South Florida,” said Wendi Walsh, the secretary-treasurer of the union’s Local, which represents the 200 housekeepers at the Fontainebleau and about a handful of other hotels in the county (Unite Here is the country’s largest hotel union). The tourism industry is one of Miami-Dade’s largest employment sectors, behind trade, transportation and utilities; education and health services; and government. It is responsible for 143,700 jobs, or 12 percent of the total local work force, according to the Beacon Council. The industry’s average pay of about $29,000 is just two-thirds of the average county wage of $43,000.

Erlande Pierre-Zamor, another Fontainebleau housekeeper, said she takes two buses daily, about two hours each way, from Miami Gardens to Miami Beach. And former dishwashers at the SLS South Beach said some of their coworkers traveled as much as three hours on three buses each way to get to their jobs. (Parking at the SLS, like at most hotels on the Beach, is not offered to low-wage employees.)

The primary cause: The disparity between the high cost of convenient housing and relatively low local wages.

According to Zumper, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach in April was $1,700. In Miami Beach, a housekeeper in a non-union hotel can expect to start at minimum wage of $8.10 per hour, or slightly more. Workers at the unionized Fontainebleau earn substantially more, starting at $11.45, according to the union.

Still, a Fontainebleau housekeeper would need to spend nearly her entire paycheck on rent to live on Miami Beach.

The problem isn’t limited to Miami Beach, though. In May 2016, Miami-Dade overall ranked No. 8 in Zumper’s report on the 10 least affordable metros. But when it comes to salaries, its housekeepers earn the least among the expensive cities, by more than $2 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report on mean hourly wages from that same month, the most recent data is available.

The No. 1 city for high rents, San Francisco, paid its housekeepers a mean hourly wage of $18.64. The No. 10 city, Chicago, paid a mean hourly wage of $12.81. No. 8, Miami-Dade, paid $10.64.

When average wages are stacked against average rents, Miami-Dade’s housekeepers ranked behind only San Francisco and New York as spending the highest percentage of their earnings on rent.

And wages don’t appear to ticking up any time soon. From 2011 to 2016, the mean hourly wage for all housekeepers in Miami-Dade County, including hotel housekeepers, increased by only 82 cents over the course of five years when adjusted for inflation, according to the labor bureau.

The gap between wages and rent puts Miami-Dade “at crisis proportions,” said Ned Murray, associate director at the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. The center’s recent study on affordable housing, which compares income and housing costs, ranked Miami-Dade as the second least affordable county in the nation for renters behind New Jersey’s Atlantic County.

While housing affordability has emerged as an issue in urban centers nationwide, Murray said it has worsened sharply in Miami Beach in recent years. The percentage of renters who spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent — termed as “severely cost burdened” — has grown by 12 percent in Miami-Dade since 2010, Murray said. In Miami Beach, it has grown by 45 percent.

As a result, service workers are forced to more affordable neighborhoods, typically far from their jobs. “It starts increasing your transportation costs, and then the combination of your housing and transportation costs becomes very high,” said Kevin Greiner, senior fellow at the Metropolitan Center.

In Paret’s case, she spends $4.50 a day on the bus with a rechargeable bus pass — less than 4 percent of her daily wages. If she had a car, she would be looking at about $8 a day at a parking garage in Miami Beach, or $100 a month with a discounted monthly permit administered by the city, in addition to gas, car payments and maintenance. No wonder workers opt for the bus, or car pool, to minimize the costs of transportation, said Walsh of the workers union.

Of course, high rents don’t stop at the causeways.

“It’s more expensive [on Miami Beach], but what’s happening is even in areas across the causeway — neighborhoods like Wynwood and Little Haiti, North Miami, those areas are escalating their rents,” Murray said. Average monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments in April ranged from $2,090 in Wynwood to $1,350 in Little Haiti, according to Zumper.

Those escalating rents are why Paret moved five years ago from the cramped two-bedroom apartment she shared with her five children on Biscayne Boulevard in the Upper East Side.

“I was living closer to the job. I took only one bus, woke up at 6 a.m. And in the afternoon I get here at 5:30 p.m.,” Paret said in English. “[But] I needed a four bedroom and a four bedroom was so expensive [in the Upper East Side].”

In Opa-locka she found a four-bedroom apartment twice the size of her previous apartment for a slightly cheaper monthly payment. Now she lives in a two-bedroom in the same income-limited Opa-locka apartment complex after four of her children moved out.

Few solutions in sight

For the affordable housing crisis to be contained, Miami-Dade County would need to build about 93,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, Murray predicts.

“Nothing in the works right now would even scratch the surface,” he said.

The county’s proposed Workforce Housing Development Program would have required new developments of 20 or more units to include affordable housing. In Miami-Dade County, “affordable housing” is designated for families making less than 140 percent of the median income in the county ($43,000, according to the latest census numbers). But by the time the measure was passed in December, the plan had morphed into a voluntary, incentive-driven program for developers.

In Miami Beach, two apartment complexes are designated for workforce housing, defined in that city as households earning less than $72,500. (Definitions for affordable housing and workforce housing vary by municipality.) The Barclay Plaza Apartments on Park Avenue target educators, public safety personnel and municipal workers. A Collins Park site currently under construction would target artists. None of the projects currently in the works is designed for hospitality workers.

Miami Beach also passed a resolution this year to consider workforce housing at all future parking garages. This plan is based on the premise that fewer parking spaces will be needed as Uber-style ride-sharing services grow and driver-less cars are introduced.

Also, fines against short-term rentals have been earmarked to create workforce housing — but before the program is triggered, the city must collect at least $200,000 in fines. The fines have yet to reach that level. (Above that figure, 80 percent of collections would go to the program.) And because short-term rental fines start at $20,000 per violation, many former renters have abandoned the practice — meaning the city might not ever reach that benchmark, said Maria Ruiz, director of Miami Beach’s office of community services.

She predicts Miami Beach is short 8,000 workforce housing units.

“At the Barclay, the best-case scenario can generate 50 or so units. Collins Park may conceivably bring in seven floors. Each of those projects will take 18 months to two years [to build],” Ruiz said.

“It’s certainly an incremental [improvement] … The challenge is going to be to build [workforce housing] in a community that is land-locked, that has so many pressing concerns, so many developmental limitations.”

The high cost of land in Miami Beach makes building affordable units a logistical impossibility, said Adam Greenberg, executive managing director of the commercial real estate firm Newman Grubb Knight Frank. Workforce housing developments, typically 8 to 15 stories, could at least go for more than $100,000 per unit in land costs alone. That’s compared to the $25,000 to $50,000 per unit guideline in Miami-Dade County for workforce housing, Greenberg said.

But those costs exceed the city’s abilities, said Miami Beach Commissioner Joy Malakoff.

“We know that there is a need and right now the best we can do is raise incomes, we hope, and provide less expensive prices for their parking,” Malakoff said.

Miami Beach offers the discounted monthly parking permits and free trolleys from the city’s 68 parking lots. The city also is working with South Florida Commuter Services to identify future opportunities for van pools and car sharing.

The next Key West?

That echoes the approach taken in the Florida Keys, where the cost of living has long exceeded the ability of many hotel and restaurant workers to pay. Transportation has helped ease the burden.

A decade ago, rising home costs, compounded by geographical and transportation limitations in the Keys, led to a major tourism worker shortage. An estimated 8,000 hospitality workers told the Monroe County Tourist Development Council in 2006 that they planned to leave the Keys. Nearly half of tourism business the council surveyed had temporary or persisting job vacancies.

“If you don’t have someplace for your employees you’re going to have a hard time finding employees,” said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West.

One solution: Import employees from the mainland. The Dade-Monroe Express, a public bus operated by both counties, begins picking workers up in Florida City at 5:10 a.m. and shuttles them as far south as mile marker 50 in Marathon — an estimated two-hour drive. Buses run about almost every 10 minutes the first hour and then pick up frequency again in the afternoon at about 3 p.m. Monroe spokeswoman Cammy Clark said the bus is “full of hotel and service industry workers that are commuting.” Fares start at $2.25 each way.

Hotels have also supplemented the bus routes with their own buses. Islamorada hotels Amara Cay Resort, Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, Pelican Cove Resort & Marina and La Siesta Resort & Marina offer an employee bus. The hotels declined to comment on the specifics of its route, citing their human resources policy.

The larger issue of steep housing costs still plagues the Keys. In unincorporated Monroe, the county is working on a workforce housing plan, but that would take public meetings and changes to its code, which could take as long as a year, Clark said. In Marathon, per a 2012 amendment, hotel redevelopments that add units or floor space and all new developments are required to include on or off-site affordable housing units (a 199-room resort in the works in Marathon will include 30 affordable units).

In Key West, the city is working to entice developers to build affordable housing (defined there as 80 to 140 percent of average median income of nearly $54,000) and trying to rezone city-owned parcels to add affordable units, said Patrick Wright, Key West’s planning director.

Several hotels have built their own units to retain employees, including the Casa Marina Resort in Key West. The hotel has dormitory-style housing for more than two dozen workers on parcels across the street from the hotel and about 1.5 miles away, said hotel spokeswoman Lisa Cole.

For now, staff housing in Miami Beach seems like wishful thinking.

The Fontainebleau is working with South Florida Commuter Services to offer emergency cab rides and is developing a summer carpool program, said Silvia Pereda, the hotel’s vice president of human resources. The hotel has partnered with Miami-Dade Transit’s Corporate Discount Program to offer pre-tax payroll deductions on bus passes.

The Fontainebleau does offer some parking at the hotel — but only for managers, supervisors and other higher level employees. The hotel also offers more than 300 discounted parking spots at city lots, or workers can valet park at a nearby hotel for $6 a day.

Other hotels have found a workaround to the high parking rates.

The family-owned Palms Hotel & Spa and Circa 39 hotels built a 135-space parking garage last year on 30th Street and Collins Avenue for all of their employees on a first come, first served basis. Parking is free.

“We owned the service lot and we basically just decided a couple of years ago to build on it,” said Nicola Meyer, vice president of revenue and distribution at the two boutique hotels. “When we decided to build the garage, the employee situation was one of the factors to be able to do that because we had challenges to find employees.”

Meyer said the burden of transportation was scaring away potential employees and causing an added strain on current employees. The hotel often had to hire Filipino workers on temporary work visas to fill employment gaps.

“We get approached by hotels around us asking to use the garage [for workers],” Meyer said. “We are probably in a unique position with that.”

Little pay for difficult work

Ultimately, affordable housing and transportation are issues that could be mitigated by higher wages. But that effort appears stalled.

In June 2016, Miami Beach unanimously passed a law to raise the minimum wage to $13.31 by 2021. But in March, a judge struck it down, ruling in favor of an alliance that included The Florida Retail Federation, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and Florida Chamber of Commerce, which argued the Miami Beach law was preempted by state law. The city has appealed the ruling and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has said he wants voters to weigh in on the issue via a statewide referendum.

In the county, Commissioner Jean Monestime, who represents one of the poorest districts in Miami-Dade, said raising the minimum wage was a pillar of his agenda as commission chair. He sponsored a minimum wage ordinance for county contractors that would set the minimum wage at $15 an hour in 2020, but the item was deferred.

That rule still won’t apply to housekeepers, who get comparatively little pay for what are very physical jobs in a highly competitive and seasonal hospitality industry. Hotels have to balance managing staff with the ups and downs of the hotel business — a juggling act that has created challenging working conditions for hotels’ lowest paid employees around the nation.

When it comes to Miami Beach hotels, Fontainebleau room attendants have a comparatively good situation. While most hotels offer a mixed bag of benefits, Walsh said, the Fontainebleau jobs come with employer-sponsored healthcare, paid vacation and sick time, a higher starting salary and a maximum limit of 14 rooms to clean per day. But that’s still 30 minutes to clean each room, and workers often stay late or skip lunch to meet their daily quota. Many complain of unfair management practices that can go from managers avoiding giving overtime to intimidation.

In other hotels around Miami-Dade County, workers have reported they clean nearly 30 rooms a day, with steep healthcare costs and no raises for decades, Walsh said.

Wages and working conditions were at the heart of a meeting last month between about 200 members of the hotel union, Monestime, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. Paret was in the crowd at the meeting, held in Overtown.

“South Florida’s economy, the economy of the state rests upon your shoulders, upon your back,” Monestime told the crowd. “It is your hard work that contributes to what we are and who we are as a community. And honestly you don’t get enough credit for it.”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

“We are going to push hard the next couple of years. By the next gubernatorial election [we are going to] make sure they give you equal pay for an equal day of work,” Monestime said. When he mentions a $15 minimum wage, someone in the crowd scoffed.

“$15 an hour?” the worker said, then burst out laughing — incredulous.

‘Never less’

Paret comes back out of the blue door at the Fontainebleau at 5:05 p.m. that afternoon. The lightness of her morning commute has disappeared. She offers only a small smile. Her eyes droop. She says little.

When the L bus pulls up two minutes later, it’s standing-room-only; a man gives Paret his seat. With the sun baking the bus, the air inside quickly becomes stuffy. Paret soon falls asleep, her head sagging to the side. Ninety minutes after boarding, she transfers to the No. 27.

She’s slow to switch buses this time. One hand on the rail. One foot up. Then the other. She hobbles to the bus stop, switching her weight from hip to hip. And she’s hungry.

Though work rules call for breaks, rest and a meal, “I do no lunch today,” Paret says in English. “I had too much work, I wanted to finish on time.” She cleaned 14 rooms that day, “never less.”

The commute clocks in at one hour, 53 minutes. She has two hours before bed and then it’s 4:30 a.m. again.

Miami Herald writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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