Lucinda “Lucy” Aghey pushes a cart nearly as tall as she is down a carpeted hallway in one of Omaha's fancier hotels.
The 38-year-old housekeeper stops at Room 431 and opens the door. She slips a placard over the handle. She squirts some hand sanitizer into her hands. Then she lets the door close swiftly behind her.
Lucy explains: “They want us to work with the door shut.”
A closed door has the intended consequence of keeping Lucy safe. A closed door has the perhaps unintended effect of making Lucy and her housekeeping co-workers at the Magnolia Hotel downtown disappear even more.
These 14 housekeepers — who earn, on average, $8.45 an hour — are some of the most invisible people you may never meet. They are among some 421,000 nationwide who have the largely thankless but necessary job of making beds. Of picking up wet towels. Of scrubbing toilets, scouring showers, emptying garbage, vacuuming, dusting, wiping and otherwise cleaning hotel rooms so that when you enter, it will be as if you were the first person in history to cross the threshold. At least that's the hope.
This luxury is, of course, in part why guests shell out at least $149 a night ($700 for the Presidential Suite) to lay their heads at the Magnolia. A big part of that bargain is that someone like Lucy has prepared the room and will return later to magically restore the linens, the towels, the lotions.
By design, this “back-of-house” work — to use industry parlance — is invisible.
So I was intrigued when Lucy's boss, Tim Darby, told me about International Housekeepers Week, when hotels and other businesses that employ maids, janitors, custodians and cleaners pause to say thanks.
For the Magnolia, this meant making the invisible people visible.
But Darby, general manager of the Magnolia, wasn't calling to promote what the hotel was doing last week: daily treats, including a free lunch at the Stokes Grill in the Old Market. He was calling because on that walk to Stokes, he heard Lucy groan about the five-block hike.
Then he heard housekeeper Nyakhor Kueth say five blocks was nothing compared with the hourlong walk each day from her childhood home in Southern Sudan to the village well. For water.
These women have stories, he said, and invited me to the Magnolia to hear them.
I went on a Friday, when the 145-room hotel was nearly full. A banking conference during the day. A wedding rehearsal in the afternoon. A wedding that night. On top of that, the CEO's husband was expected for a weekend stay. Amid it all, 120 guests were checking out, and 120 guests were checking in.
On the second floor, I found Nyakhor, a 27-year-old from what is now South Sudan who grew up without running water or electricity. She fled from the country's long civil war, landing finally in Omaha.
Nyakhor has two children, ages 11 and 5. She lost a baby during pregnancy while working at a chicken-processing plant in Iowa. Nyakhor seemed to believe the plant's cold workroom led to the loss.
“The meat company is OK,” she said. “Too much cold. Housekeeping is warm.”
Warm. She says this as she bends and stretches to wipe down a bathroom.
In the basement, I met Noora Agrawi, a 34-year-old from Iraq. Noora is a housekeeping supervisor. She speaks five languages and shakes her head when I compliment her English, which, considering the 3˝ years she's been in the U.S., is pretty good.
Then, when I ask about her children back in Iraq, she begins to cry.
Noora is Christian. Her husband and father are Muslim. Iraq's postwar sectarian violence has divided her family. Noora and her Christian mother had to flee Baghdad; Noora's husband refused to let their children go with her.
Noora works full time at the Magnolia and part time at a No Frills deli. She is grateful for the work.
“It's my family,” she says of the Magnolia. “Believe me.”
Then there's Lucy.
Lucy was born in Omaha but has fled heartbreak, too. I caught up with her as she finished a smoke break at a picnic table in the far corner of the hotel's gated parking lot.
Lucy buttoned up her black smock, covering the tattoo she got long ago of a padlock and the words inscribed over her heart: “No one's supposed to be here.”
“Men,” she explained. “They done scarred me.”
The man who got her pregnant at 16. The man with whom she had two more children. Lucy's daughters now live with their father after a custody hearing over a decade ago that “drained my soul.”
Homelessness and depression followed.
“But I always seem to pull myself back,” she said.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
The one constant in Lucy's life has been work. Hard work. Mainly at hotels. Mainly in housekeeping.
Lucy has been at the Magnolia for over a year. The full-time job provides paid vacation, health insurance, complimentary meals each shift, free downtown parking, reduced-cost work shoes, half-price bus passes and a 401(k) program that the Denver-based company matches at 5 percent of her salary.
Lucy likes her co-workers. A maintenance worker changed her tire when she had a flat. She likes her bosses, who write individual thank-you notes and post them in the breakroom.
Lucy's wages have gone up. She has gotten recognition. In December, she was named Employee of the Month, which came with $50, a paid day off, special parking and lunch with her manager. She has been treated to a special monthly white-tablecloth breakfast in the hotel lounge for the top three housekeepers who scored highest on inspections.
The Magnolia is a second home to Lucy. Her first home is an apartment with monthly rent a lot lower than what the Presidential Suite goes for on a wedding night.
The worlds are different, and Lucy seems to navigate both with humor, chutzpah and acceptance. At work, she gets teary over brides. At home, she escapes into books, painting her nails and a purse collection she says “is ridiculous.”
How does she get by on low wages? “I'm a good budgeter.”
What have guests left behind? Keys, cellphones, cellphone chargers and … tips. Five dollars a night is customary, but some people don't think about tipping.
And sometimes guests leave a royal mess. Lucy said she's seen “all kinds of craziness,” including the time at a different hotel when guests trashed the swimming pool.
Does she feel invisible?
Lucy says no. She makes a point to speak to hotel guests.
“Some people will speak. Some people will look past you,” she said. “But I don't let it deter me from saying, 'Good morning. How's your stay? Have a safe trip.' ”
And the goodwill is often returned. The other day, a Magnolia guest approached Lucy and asked about her day.
Lucy's day at the Magnolia ended almost nine hours after it began. She clocked in at 8 a.m. and out at 4:37 p.m.
Her car in the shop, she planned to catch the bus home. I offered her a lift, but she politely declined.
“That's where my pride kicks in,” she said.
With that, she went upstairs and walked through the lobby, out the front door.