Drugs, blood, confetti, and broken glass: Atlantic City housekeepers share what they wish guests knew — and why they need a raise

Drugs, blood, confetti, and broken glass: Atlantic City housekeepers share what they wish guests knew — and why they need a raise
Service workers and their employers are negotiating a new contract at Caesars Atlantic City.Charles Davis/Insider
  • Atlantic City housekeepers say the hotel rooms they clean are dirtier than ever.
  • Staff told Insider they had just 30 minutes to clean rooms that have been completely trashed.

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey — Ana Maldonado was animated when she described how the job she'd been performing for 18 years was worse than ever.

Originally from Honduras, the mother of four moved to the East Coast's oceanfront gambling mecca — a modest answer to Las Vegas, with the advantage of a boardwalk and a beach — to clean rooms in casino hotels, persevering through multiple recessions, natural disasters, and the outbreak of a novel coronavirus.

In the best of times, which may well have been decades ago, a resort city that formally billed itself as "always turned on" was not associated with dignity and class. Atlantic City was where people went to engage in sin, of the legally permissible variety or otherwise. But 2 1/2 years of COVID-19, labor shortages, and inflation have made life less bearable for the workers who make possible the overindulgence of others.

"It's not a job that's really valued, by society or by the companies," Maldonado told Insider, speaking rapidly in Spanish outside a ballroom in Caesars Atlantic City, where employees like her are engaged in negotiations for a new contract. That was true before 2020, but workers like her now feel they are being asked to do more for even less money and respect.

"Since the pandemic, everything changed," she said.


For one, fewer people are willing to scrub floors and bathroom tiles for little more than New Jersey's $13 minimum wage. But Maldonado said the rooms themselves are also being left more disgusting than they used to be, making an already unpleasant job that much more difficult.

"The day these people leave," Maldonado said, "the rooms are three times as dirty."

Seven workers at Atlantic City casinos told Insider they're struggling to make ends meet cleaning rooms they say are filthier than ever. They described rooms full of shattered glass and linens, stained with bodily fluids from intravenous drug use, and carpets caked in food waste and confetti or soiled by dogs and cats that are practically impossible to sanitize in the 30 minutes or less that workers have to prepare rooms for the next guest.

Workers said they have encountered cockroaches and ants swarming over the remains of food, with some guests turning their rooms into makeshift kitchens to avoid the rising costs of eating out.

Maldonado, who works at Tropicana Atlantic City, said she's also been yelled at for trying to clean rooms where guests don't want to be caught taking "all kinds of drugs," though they leave behind both syringes and blood.


"This creates a personal risk for us," she said, adding that she and other housekeepers who spoke with Insider — mostly women of color, many of them immigrants, and all working for $16.25 an hour or less — were being asked to enter these sometimes occupied rooms alone.

Drugs, blood, confetti, and broken glass: Atlantic City housekeepers share what they wish guests knew — and why they need a raise
A receptionist at the Golden Nugget told Insider that rooms were cleaned every other day on average.Charles Davis/Insider

Guests declining cleaning services actually leads to more work

In Atlantic City, and elsewhere, hotels have been encouraging guests to decline daily cleaning services, citing concern for the environment, the threat of COVID-19, and, more recently, staff shortages.

In a recent report, Unite Here Local 54, the union that represents housekeepers and other casino service workers, highlighted a photo of a sign in the lobby of the Golden Nugget that told guests: "Daily Housekeeping services are unavailable at this time."

When Insider visited the Golden Nugget, there was no sign in the lobby. But when asked how often guests could expect rooms to be cleaned, an employee at reception said: "Usually every other day."

Legally, that's not supposed to be the case. In June 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, signed into law a measure that required occupied hotel rooms to be "cleaned and sanitized every day."


Lisa M. Ryan, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said the state has sent letters to hotels informing them of their obligations under the law. "Complaints will be investigated by [the department's] inspection staff," she added.

Golden Nugget did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Laws aside, guests may believe they're being more considerate by not insisting on daily cleaning. It's less work for others, right? And those sheets can last another day. But the workers interviewed for this story don't see it like that.

Ronette Lark, a mother of two who's worked at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City for 24 years, handles room deliveries. Before the pandemic, that meant an extra towel or pillow. Now it's the whole shebang: blankets, sheets, and whatever else guests need to essentially clean their rooms themselves.

By declining or not requesting daily cleaning services, Lark said, "you think you're doing me a favor, but you're not — you're just offloading more work."


And that's more work for not much more money — indeed, for less money these days, considering inflation and the rising cost of everything. Outside a recent $0.25 hike in her hourly rate, bringing her up to $16.25, "I hadn't seen a raise since probably, like, Sandy came," Lark said, referring to the destructive 2012 hurricane.

Not counting overtime, a $16.25 an hour wage translates to less than $32,000 a year in a region where, according to MIT's Living Wage Calculator, an adult with no children needs more than $37,000 to cover the annual cost of food, housing, and healthcare while maintaining a decent standard of life.

Drugs, blood, confetti, and broken glass: Atlantic City housekeepers share what they wish guests knew — and why they need a raise
Atlantic City offers one of few beaches in New Jersey where visitors do not need to pay a fee.Charles Davis/Insider

'It's just terrible'

Guests often do not clean rooms to which they have no long-term attachment, even if they're trying to be polite.

Most leave their room worse than they found it — and many are not trying to do any work when they're on vacation and paying for the privilege of not caring.

"Now we have a situation where there are people not requesting service for two or three or four days a week, and when they leave, the work is much harder," Teresa Lopez, who has worked at Caesars for 20 years after moving from Puerto Rico, said in Spanish.


"When people don't want service, they throw their food, mixing everything together on the floor," she said, referring to sheets, towels, and other things in the room. "They even fight. There is even blood."

Iris Sanchez, a mother of three and nine-year veteran of Caesars, said she gas encountered the aftermath of what seemed to be hotel brawls.

"Glass all over the floor," she said. "They break stuff. They throw stuff. It's just terrible."

The partiers aren't much better.

"There's 10 people where there should only be two people," she said.


Sometimes because they don't want to get caught, these large groups often refuse daily service — leaving poorly ventilated showers covered in what appeared to be mold, Sanchez said.

"You throw water and just black stuff comes down," she said. And then there's the confetti that sticks to everything. "To vacuum that? Oh, my God, it's terrible," she added.

And because guests aren't regularly having their rooms cleaned, they often aren't tipping, either.

"I could do 14 checkouts, and I'm lucky if I take home $20. That's how bad it is," Sanchez said.

Mercedes Cuadros, an immigrant from Mexico who makes $16 an hour after 11 years as a housekeeper at Caesars, said she now has to work six days a week to make ends meet, at the expense of time with her two children.


"I would like to rest for two days because I have grandchildren. I have children, but I need to work," she said.

In addition to her employer hiring more staff, she wants the state government to enforce daily cleaning requirements, saying that guests have been blaming — and verbally abusing — housekeepers like her when they're surprised to find their rooms have not been cleaned.

"I don't know much English," she said, "but I understand the curse words."

Drugs, blood, confetti, and broken glass: Atlantic City housekeepers share what they wish guests knew — and why they need a raise
Caesars Entertainment operates three of the casino hotels in Atlantic City: its namesake, Harrah's, and Tropicana.Charles Davis/Insider

Workers threaten to strike

Housekeepers aren't just complaining.

On June 15, a supermajority of unionized service staff at five Atlantic City casinos — Caesars, Tropicana, and Harrah's, which are operated by the same company, as well as the Borgata and Hard Rock — voted to authorize a strike if their negotiating committee failed to reach a new agreement with their employers ahead of the July 4 weekend. Unite Here said that in a survey of more than 1,900 of its members, 61% reported struggling to pay the cost of housing, with nearly one-third saying they struggled to pay for food.


All of the casinos involved didn't respond to Insider's email requests for comment.

Workers believe their employers have the money. Revenues have rebounded since the pandemic started, with Atlantic City casinos posting higher gambling wins than they did before COVID-19 — its best month in nearly a decade was May, according to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

"Over the years, casino workers have sacrificed wage increases for the health of the industry," Unite Here Local 54, which represents about 10,000 employees in Atlantic City, said in a statement. "Workers have persevered through casino closures, Hurricane Sandy, and a global pandemic. Now, they're falling behind. As industry's profits and gaming revenues surpass pre-pandemic levels, wages for Atlantic City's casino workers have not kept pace."

"It's not enough," Rodney Mills, who fields guests' room requests at Tropicana for $16.25 an hour, said in an interview.

The single father of three spent the first 17 months of the pandemic laid off from his job as a casino buffet server. He wants a livable wage, he said, without being required to work mandatory overtime because no one else wants to do the job for the advertised rate.


"We want to be treated as human beings," he said.

Luana Molley, a grandmother with three kids of her own, described her work as "more dirty" and "more hazardous" than ever. She's spent 11 years working as a housekeeper at Harrah's and now makes $16.25 an hour. She said the current workload is affecting her quality of life.

"It's harder for me to help with the homework. It's harder for me to walk the dog. It's harder to spend time with my grandbaby. It's just harder," she said.

But she was defiant when asked if that hardship would ever lead her to give up on life in the city where she was born.

"I will never be pushed out of my home. This is my hometown. This is where my sand is in my shoes, and I'm not letting anybody take that from me," she said. "I will do what I have to do. And if that's striking, then we will strike."


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