Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could have been prophesizing about workers like Crowne Plaza hotel housekeeper Ashley Cathey and co-worker Alexis Matthews in mind when he said in 1963: “God never intended for one group of superfluous, inordinate wealth, while others live in abject, deadening poverty.”

In an era punctuated by income inequality, both women string together multiple jobs to make ends meet while working in an industry bankrolled by tax breaks, subsidizing already-wealthy developers. One such developer comes to mind: Bob Loeb, a descendant of Henry Loeb, the anti-union segregationist mayor of Memphis, who presided over the city when Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

When city and county officials grant these multimillion-dollar tax breaks, the developers promise jobs. Sometimes these are low-wage jobs, the kind that keep the Catheys and Matthews of the world mired in poverty, stressed out and turning to union movements to secure better pay.

“God never intended for one group of superfluous, inordinate wealth, while others live in abject, deadening poverty.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What it’s like to be a hotel housekeeper

Lately, Cathey, 28, has endured the indignity of having to buy her own cleaning products to do her housekeeping job at Crowne Plaza Memphis East.

“Sometimes we don’t have garbage cans,” Cathey said. “Guests complain about the smell of the room because we don’t have air freshener. I bring stuff like bleach and Mean Green to make sure my rooms are up to par.”

For eight months, she was promoted to health inspector, a reward for being willing to pitch in wherever needed and having a can-do attitude. She said she was demoted after being informed of having eight write-ups when she only recalls signing two.

Cathey said she was told by human resources that several co-workers questioned her quick rise up the ranks, being promoted five months into the job. The pride she had taken in her job was undermined: “They are taking the (job) situation back from me because some of the housekeepers came around saying it wasn’t fair.”

She said the local Fight for $15 chapter is drafting a petition, hoping to get some of Cathey’s co-workers to sign it. Meanwhile, Cathey still earns her health inspector’s pay: $9.54 an hour, just $1.22 more than the starting pay for a housekeeper, $8.32. Cathey has worked at the hotel for about 18 months.

“I’m doing more than one person’s job, some of the supervisors’ jobs, the housekeeper’s job,” Cathey said. “I sometimes I do the engineering jobs; for example, if there’s something that needs to be fixed in a room, I do it, like replacing a broken toilet paper holder or light fixture.”

At 40 hours a week, the starting pay earns a housekeeper $332.80 a week before taxes. However, Alexis Matthews, 25, a housekeeper at Crowne Plaza, said she doesn’t work full-time.

“We’re supposed to have 80 hours every two weeks, 40 hours a week, but it’s more like 30 hours,” Matthews said. To make ends meet, Matthews works at Checkers part-time, making $8 an hour.

Cathey brings home less than $1,200 monthly, while the average one-bedroom rental apartment in Memphis costs upward of $800. Cathey said her rent is $734 a month in Whitehaven, and her utility bill is around $200 a month.

Tax breaks offer little return for taxpayers

These jobs are the kind Memphis is subsidizing through major tax incentives. For example, in 2016, EDGE, a city-county economic development agency, granted developer Bob Loeb’s luxury Overton Square hotel project a $6.1 million tax abatement. Of 65 jobs created, the majority — 55 jobs — pay less than $21,000 a year in the nation’s poorest large metro area.

Only eight of the 65 new jobs created by the hotel project will pay more than $30,000 per year, and 45 will pay so little, workers will almost certainly qualify for food stamps.

The average hourly rate for a hotel housekeeper is $11.46, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data. That comes to $23,830 annually, but the bureau reports 25 percent of housekeepers make $9.11 an hour, or $18,960 a year.

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the Memphis-area living wage for an adult with no children, like Cathey, is $10.75 an hour, compared with the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. And for an adult with a child, which would include Matthews, who is raising her nephew, a living wage would be $21.90 an hour.

Based on the cost of living in Memphis, the calculator says a living wage for an adult working full-time with two children should be $24.86 an hour, and two working adults full-time with one child should bring in $20.30 an hour.

Like Matthews, Cathey works part-time in the fast-food industry. She earns $8 an hour at Church’s Chicken; she also picks up occasional bartending gigs at Club Paradise. At that job, she makes $2.13 an hour, although the tips from busy nights can bring in around $250.

“On a regular night there, the money’s not worth it,” Cathey said.

Cleaning all day leaves Cathey exhausted. The 11 housekeepers on staff are supposed to have 15 rooms to clean a shift. But Matthews said they sometimes have up to 25 rooms, which leaves housekeepers less time to clean. For a check-out clean when a guest is leaving, what used to take a half hour, housekeepers must do in 22 minutes. For a stay-over clean, a 15-minute cleaning job must be done in 12 minutes.

When workers asked their bosses why the cleaning time was shortened, “They didn’t give a reason,” Matthews said.

Both women struggle to keep afloat. Cathey said she often asks family for help. Although she applied for food stamps, she was denied because the state said she made too much. Right now, she said, her car is broken down, and until she can afford to fix it, Cathey is paying a co-worker to give her rides to and from work.

Matthews had problems applying for state assistance. Both workers said the hotel doesn’t always provide them with a printed pay stub, and the inability to get printed pay stubs prevents employees from applying for programs like Medicaid or Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). Tennessee is one of nine “no requirement states,” meaning employers are not required to provide a detailed statement of their pay.

Being a housekeeper can be downright scary at times. Cathey recalled a time a guest asked her to come clean the room, and a naked man was on the bed. The guest instructed her to make the bed with the man in it.

“That was a position I felt like I should never have been in,” Cathey said.

Fight for $15 sees promise for better pay

Both housekeepers have been involved with the Fight for $15 movement — Cathey for five years, Matthews for four years. Both started at the same McDonald’s on Third Street.

Working with Fight for $15 locally, Ashley Cathey says she’s “carrying their fight forward.” Photo by Andrea Morales.

Over those years, they’ve seen changes. Workers, especially fast-food employees, have formed unions, and fought for a living wage. Target announced increases to a $15 an hour minimum wage by 2020. Regions Bank’s parent company recently announced a boost to $15 an hour, according to media reports.

“Over 200,000 people have received raises since this campaign,” Cathey said. “Now it’s not just the fast-food workers; it’s janitors, healthcare workers, adjunct professors, schoolteachers,” Cathey said.

Although minimum wages have gone up for some workers in Seattle, New York and California, Cathey said the high cost of living in those places makes it an even break, at best. Her hopes aren’t bright for better wages in Memphis, where living costs are lower than peer cities.

“By us being the South, I don’t think that we’ll even get close to $15 because we’re still segregated here,” she said. “If we do see a raise, because the cost of living is going up in the South every day, we’d still be five steps behind.”

Cathey has emerged as a spokesperson with the local Fight for $15 campaign, which organizes on the national Facebook page, posting about meetings, protests and sit-ins.

Meanwhile, Crowne Plaza has spent millions on renovations.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death on April 4. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.