On March 23, nonunionized housekeepers at the Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago received a message from management with the subject title: “Change in the Housekeeping Structure.” The letter said that effective May 1, the luxury gym, which includes a tennis club designed by Venus Williams, would begin using an outside contractor for its cleaning needs. The thirty-eight housekeepers would be laid off. While the workers were told they were welcome to apply for positions with the third party, “whether they hire you is up to them.”
The letter noted that a few other Midtown clubs across the country use an outside contractor for housekeeping services, but the Chicago workers saw the move as retaliation: they had been raising concerns about the club’s lack of protective equipment and cleaning supplies for months, and internally pushing for better staffing for more than a year. It also came mere days after the Chicago location’s maintenance staff and porters voted to unionize with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399. The housekeepers say that the club, which currently charges $259 a month for an individual membership (plus a $350 joining fee) and paid its housekeepers $16 to $17 an hour, did not rectify the issues. So, in the fall of 2022, they went to Arise Chicago, a workers’ center, with their concerns.
“There was a lack of both towels and the personnel to keep them clean,” says Monica Vargas, who has worked at Midtown Athletic Club for a year and a half. She says the club lacked biohazard bins for bloody towels, and that she and her fellow workers were always short on protective equipment in general and garbage bags and high-quality gloves in particular. “They didn’t have dedicated bins for disposal of sharps — some members of the clubs would use injectable medications, so they’d dispose of them in the garbage and the staff would on occasion stab themselves with them.”
Shortly after reaching out to Arise Chicago, the Midtown housekeepers filed complaints with the Chicago Office of Labor Standards (OLS), National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). According to Arise, one worker was fired in retaliation for those efforts, though they reached a settlement through the NLRB. According to a press release from Arise, OSHA investigated Midtown and provided a list of needed improvements and a required posting to workers, but one housekeeper reported that Midtown displayed the poster for less than a week before taking it down, and that the club has not fully completed any of OSHA’s listed improvements.
In response to the March 23 layoff notice, Midtown’s housekeepers held a work stoppage on April 1, passing out flyers encouraging the gym’s members to contact Midtown’s management and urge them to rescind the decision to fire the cleaners. They also filed an NLRB unfair labor practice complaint on March 28, including petitioning for an injunction on company firings due to their organizing campaign. The housekeepers then formed a formal workplace committee, electing four leaders to deliver a letter requesting to meet with management on April 10.
Three days later, the workers received another notice: effective immediately, they were all fired. The notice stated that the housekeepers were eligible for a severance agreement that would compensate them for the work they would have completed through May 1, but workers say that to receive the money, they were told they would have to sign a document attesting they had resigned rather than been fired.
“Midtown asked us all to sign a document resigning in order to receive offered pay through May 1 and our last paycheck for work already performed,” says Nadia Don, who has worked at Midtown for three years. Worse, Cristina Perez, another Midtown housekeeper, claims that when she texted the club’s housekeeping director after receiving the layoff notice about getting her personal belongings from a locker at Midtown, she was told that she could only do so if she signed the document stating that she had voluntarily resigned.
“I told her I had medication that I needed, including for diabetes, in my locker,” says Perez, who has worked at Midtown for two years. “She said no, that I was only allowed to collect my belongings or even enter the building if I signed the paper voluntarily resigning. What would happen if I ran out of medication? What was I supposed to do? It made me feel like I was asking for a big favor or a gift for something so basic as accessing my own medicine. It was so disrespectful and made me feel trapped.”
“We are being treated like criminals,” says Claudia Gonzalez, who has worked at Midtown for around two and a half years. “If we set foot on the property, we’re told we’ll be considered trespassing. It’s tremendously unfair that the company has tied the condition of signing this document to get their pay and belongings — those things should not be connected. I am saddened by the entire situation.”
Gonzalez claims that while Midtown told her and her coworkers that they could apply for positions with the outside contractor, the club had “expressly told the new vendor that only in very limited circumstances should they consider any of the old employees. They want to turn over this workforce and to whatever extent possible, the new workers hired by the vendors should be entirely new to the club.”
In comments to Block Club Chicago, Midtown denied the workers’ claims. Jon Brady, Midtown’s president, says the club is fully compliant with all health and safety protocols and that “Midtown Athletic is not taking retaliatory action.” He also contested the workers’ claims that they had been denied access to their lockers. I requested comments on the allegations via a message sent through Midtown’s website. A representative from the club called me shortly thereafter, but when I informed him of the reason I had contacted Midtown and asked if he’d like to have another representative call back or email with comments, he abruptly hung up.
The workers are urging Midtown’s members to contact the club’s leadership over the alleged retaliation. Some members have already done so: Katherine Bissell Córdova, who has been a Midtown member for around a year, says that when she first reached out to management following the April 1 work stoppage, the club told her they had received a “high volume of complaints about cleanliness,” a claim she finds hard to believe.
“I was always amazed by how clean it was given how high volume a club it is,” says Córdova. “It was obvious that they work hard, for long hours, to keep it really clean.” Córdova says that she is “dismayed” by the situation and thinks that Midtown management had assumed that members like herself wouldn’t notice or care about the firings.
“But everyone I have told has been so mad and so surprised to hear this and asking what they can do,” says Córdova. “Of course, some of us are reconsidering our membership — a lot of members are at the club several days a week, and we have real relationships with these workers.”
“Midtown needs to hire these people back immediately,” says Córdova when asked what she would like to tell the club’s management. “These are human beings with families. We spend a premium on this club, and it’s not fair that our dollars go to bringing in another workforce rather than to these people. We don’t want them treated as if they are disposable.”
“We want people to know the kind of conditions that we endured at the club, and we want to be sure that independent of the outcome for us, that this is not something that continues to happen to workers at Midtown going forward,” says Gonzalez. “We don’t want this to be repeated in the future, whether the workers are direct to Midtown or employed by a third party.”
“We want not just the public but especially the members of the club to know that it was always our duty to create a top-tier experience for our members, independent of the challenges we faced, whether being short-staffed or lacking the supplies we needed,” adds Vargas. She continues:
We were ready to drop dead at the end of our shifts but if members take anything away from this, we hope it’s that we were doing our very best and we would never have allowed anything to be subpar due to a lack of effort. We always gave 100 percent for the members, and we are asking them to support us now in our fight. We want them to know the other side of patronizing Midtown Athletic Club. They come in and they get to enjoy a wonderful experience, and we believe that is in no small part due to the work we do, but we also want them to reach out to the club and say that the way they are treating the housekeeping staff is wrong.