Since September, housekeepers at Bucktown’s Midtown Athletic Club have been advocating for better working conditions. They claim they were understaffed, overworked, and operating in dangerous conditions, resulting in injuries for some. However, their pleas went unanswered after the luxury fitness center and hotel abruptly fired them on April 13.
Ex-staffer Vanessa Vasquez, 30, says she feels humiliated and useless. Vasquez worked at Midtown Athletic Club for two years and says that she was shocked when she learned she was fired through an email.
According to the email, Midtown decided to “expedite the previously-communicated transition to a third party housekeeping team” meaning workers’ positions were terminated effective immediately.
This email followed another sent on March 23 in which the club first notified housekeeping that their positions would be eliminated on May 1, as the club outsourced the positions to Advanced Cleaning Technologies (ACT).
In both emails, the club stated workers had the option to reapply for their jobs with ACT directly, but that their positions were not guaranteed by the company.
“We want to be clear that once this transition takes place, the new service provider will be your employer. They will supervise you and be responsible for your terms and conditions of employment including wages and benefits,” Midtown Athletic Club said in the March 23 email.
Workers are now feeling devastated and blindsided as they believed they had until May 1 to try to negotiate with the gym to improve working conditions and retain their jobs.
The dismissal has fueled ex-staffers to speculate that the club’s decision to fire them just weeks before the May 1 deadline was in retaliation for them speaking out about poor working conditions.
Workers spent the past six months organizing for better working conditions, allegedly filing several complaints.
“There were many complaints, even by email. We said it through texts, we wrote to them, there were many and with the help of Arise Chicago they began to help us,” Vasquez says.
Arise Chicago, an organization that helps non-unionized workers organize, educated the workers on their rights and supported them in filing complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor, Chicago Office of Labor Standards, National Labor Relations Board and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“First talking to these workers, they were raising the concept of a union. They liked the idea of being able to come together and bargain collectively with their employer. But their big focus was around democratizing the work,” Jose Uribe, a campaign organizer with Arise Chicago.
In those complaints, the workers alleged that the club refused to provide them with adequate sick leave and endangered workers by exposing them to unsafe cleaning chemicals without proper protective equipment.
“They would cancel our sick days and said we needed a note from the doctor. It was impossible knowing we had a right to our sick days,” Vasquez says.
In an interview with Block Club Chicago, Midtown’s President Jon Brady said the cleaning staff had the same amount of sick time as every other club employee.
Vasquez says that she was one of the workers who suffered injuries while at work, claiming that she suffered an eye infection after chemicals splashed in her eye. The injury left her on a month-long disability leave. She also noted that she began experiencing skin irritations when working inside of the gym.
“We had no protection,” she says.” We were exposed to many illnesses that caused our skin to become irritated.”
Vasquez says coworkers found needles and blood-stained towels but had no place to safely dispose of the materials. According to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), human blood contains infectious bloodborne pathogens that can cause disease in humans. In order to reduce the hazards of occupational exposure to pathogens, OSHA requires employers to implement an exposure control plan that must include providing personal protective clothing and equipment, employee training, and other provisions required by OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard.
In response to speculations of retaliatory behavior on the gym’s part, Brady told Block Club Chicago that the long-planned layoffs had nothing to do with retaliation and that staffers were all paid through May 1.
Workers have filed additional complaints in response to the layoffs in hope their pleas will be heard and that they can return to work.
“I was one who loved it and we liked it because it was already our second home. You start to make friends with the members,” Vasquez says. “We love our work and we want to return to our work.”
Ex-staffers aren’t the only ones concerned about the club’s response and treatment of these workers. Katherine Bissell Córdova, who’s been a member of the gym for over a year, says she and other members were “shocked” and “upset” when they heard how housekeeping was being treated, adding that they were the “backbone of the club.”
Bissell Córdova says she wants the company to hire the workers back or she and other members will find another gym to work out at.
“We really want them to rehire these workers or a lot of people I know are considering no longer being part of the club,” Bissell Córdova says.