Check Out Working Conditions Before Checking In for Business

By Jerome Epstein, Carl Sheingold and David Saperstein

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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Last week the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements — encompassing the vast majority of American Jews — became founding members of the Informed Meetings Exchange, or Inmex. We feel strongly that Inmex, an independent organization that provides objective information on working conditions within the hospitality industry, will help translate the values we espouse into the actions we pursue.

Each year at our regional and national conventions, youth conclaves and professional assemblies, we immerse ourselves in a mix of spirituality, learning, inspiration and fun as we honor our past, reflect on our present and look with optimism toward our future. We spend hundreds of hours, and countless dollars, on these events. We plan everything from the roster of speakers to the number of donuts served at morning plenaries. We account for every detail.

In recent years, we have all begun to look beyond pure logistics as we take the moral and ethical implications of our events and meetings into consideration. Have we made it financially feasible for all within our community to participate? Do we provide healthy food options? Should a share of the costs, or saved costs, be donated to charity?

We grapple with these issues as we plan everything from local youth group events to national biennial conventions. Perhaps it is not feasible to address each one of these concerns adequately, but we must not be naive. Our choices and actions send messages as clearly as the words we speak from the pulpit, and it is the responsibility of our communities to engage with these issues seriously.

An inescapable ethical issue we must face is whether hotels and convention centers in which we hold our events are fair and just to their workers. This information is not listed on venues’ Web sites alongside their room rates, and can be quite difficult to uncover — but it must be considered in our decision-making process.

Many in the hotel industry work physically demanding jobs under difficult conditions. A study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco found that hotel housekeepers are injured on the job 25% more often than other workers in the country, that three out of four hotel housekeepers experience “very severe” pain and that 84% regularly take pain medication for injuries incurred at work.

As one housekeeper said in another study, “Some days my leg would swell up and I would literally limp from room to room. When the pain was at its worst, I would sit on the beds and cry because it hurt so much. In the rooms, at least no one would see me.”

How can we address this issue? Enter Inmex. Launched last month, Inmex serves to research, analyze and disseminate information about the hospitality industry. Inmex does not recommend using, or not using, specific hotels. Rather, it empowers its member organizations — which include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Sierra Club, Unite Here and more than 100 others — to make informed decisions about how and where their event dollars are spent.

It is easy to think of times when Inmex would have been a valuable resource for our organizations during the last year. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation’s executive leadership meetings generated more than $50,000 for the hospitality industry. United Synagogue’s many programs used more than 9,000 room-nights. The Union for Reform Judaism’s most recent national biennial convention represented a windfall of 10,000 room-nights and more than $1.6 million for Houston hotels.

These three examples represent only a fraction of our communities’ annual spending for conferences and hotels, and they represent only one constituency within Inmex — a group that counts an impressive number of academic, social and other religious institutions among its members. We are proud to join this community, and hope that through Inmex we can better understand where to spend our dollars to mirror the values of our tradition.

For us, this is not an issue of support for labor or management. Rather, we are committed to fair, constructive and sensitive treatment by each side toward one another. We believe that Inmex’s goal of transparency helps move us in that direction.

We are confident that our movements’ attention to this issue will translate to synagogues and congregants similarly considering how hotel choices align with our Jewish values. Through these thoughtful choices, we most certainly can strengthen our community — both locally and globally.

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