In normal times, nobody takes a job as a hotel cook or housekeeper expecting to end up on the front lines of safeguarding the public.
For employees at a handful of Chicago hotels, the coronavirus pandemic has put them in exactly that situation, and they deserve a tip of the hat.
These are workers like Jose Gonzalez, 27, a cook at Hotel 166, a boutique hotel off Michigan Avenue that usually caters to tourists. Under an emergency city contract, the hotel now houses individuals who are mildly ill with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to it.
Instead of cooking pub food for guests in the hotel’s two bars, Gonzalez now helps prepare three square meals a day for patients needing quarantine or isolation who cannot just stay home. Some of the hotel’s current guests are homeless people.
One of Gonzalez’s co-workers is Miriam Santoyo, 43, a room attendant whose duties include cleaning guest rooms — these days only after the rooms have been long vacated.
Rather than rushing to turn over the room for the next guest after checkout, Santoyo waits four days after someone leaves the hotel to perform her cleaning duties, then begins by spraying down the furniture with disinfectant.
Santoyo, who has worked at the hotel 12 years, said she accepted the opportunity to come back to work after more senior workers passed it up because she saw a chance to help.
“I ask God to take care of me, to be with me,” Santoyo told me through an interpreter. “These people didn’t have a choice [about getting sick]. And, if I can do anything to help, I want to do it.”
Gonzalez admits he’s more motivated by the money. He said he feels “truly blessed” to be working at a time so many others in his industry have been laid off.
Their union, UNITE HERE Local 1, estimates that only 200 to 300 of its 7,600 downtown Chicago members were working as of April 1.
During the pandemic, Gonzalez and Santoyo are receiving hazard pay — about $2.50 an hour more.
“I don’t want to get in that position where I’m backed up in bills,” Gonzalez said.
But he’s also happy to be playing what he sees as a support role in a larger cause.
“I appreciate what everyone has been doing, supporting one another,” Gonzalez said.
And even though he would tell you he’s not doing anything brave, properly bestowing that distinction instead on the health care workers from Lawndale Christian Health Center who are actually interacting upstairs with the hotel’s patients, he recognizes he’s taking an increased risk.
Gonzalez said his fiancée is much more worried about the potential health dangers than he is, but with a 5-year-old daughter at home, he’s taking it seriously.
At work, he and the other cooks stay inside the kitchen, wearing their face masks and gloves. They pass meals through a window to the nurses.
Gonzalez said he comes home these days smelling like hand sanitizer instead of frying oil. He changes his shoes in the car because his fiancée worries about the virus being on the soles. He strips off his dirty clothes as soon as he’s inside and stows them in a plastic bag before a shower.
Santoyo said she feels at greater risk riding the Orange Line to work and back than on the job: On the train, anyone could be sick. At the hotel, everyone is receiving proper medical care.
“I know the consequences. I’m taking precautions,” she said.
At the Cass Hotel, which doesn’t have a city contract for now, housekeeper Kimmie Jordan is deep-cleaning guest rooms in preparation for an anticipated city role.
“I feel like I have to do my part in this state of emergency,” Jordan said.
Other hotels hired by the city include Hotel Essex, which is putting up first-responders; London House and Godfrey Hotel, both set aside for healthcare workers; and the Julian Hotel, which is supposed to serve a similar role as Hotel 166.
Nobody is saying hotel workers are facing equivalent risks to others on the front lines of this crisis. But add them to the list with the grocery workers of people who deserve recognition.
At Hotel 166 on Friday, lobby attendant Javier De la rosa was doubly happy. On top of it being his first full payday in a while, he now has a sense that his job is a little more important than it was.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I can tell you that.”