What I Learned as a Hotel Maid

It’s common knowledge that people who work in the food service industry are usually the best tippers. Well, whenever we stay in a hotel, I always make sure to leave a good tip for the person who cleans our room. That’s because when I was 18 years old, I spent the summer before I started nursing school working as a hotel maid in the town of Canmore Alberta.

Looking back, it wasn’t too bad as far as starter jobs go. I went there with a friend who knew someone in her church who had purchased a hotel in the resort town, just outside the gates of Banff National Park. The hotel had about 70 or 80 rooms if I remember correctly, and my friend and I shared a small three bedroom suite with three other girls behind the laundry room and underneath the owner’s family residence. We were only there for the summer rush, in the off season it was much quieter with only two permanent staff members who were year round residents of the town. Here’s what I learned that summer:

1) Hotel maids have a difficult job

Now I said earlier that it wasn’t a bad job. But I was 18 and my previous jobs included picking raspberries, sorting raspberries at a processing plant, hosing down dog runs at a boarding kennel and flipping burgers at a fast food counter. (My parents were huge believers in the value of child labour, by the way.) Compared to those jobs it was great, but spending all day scrubbing and cleaning is still really hard work. Our day started at about 8 am and we’d usually go strong until about 2 pm. Then we’d take turns doing about three more hours in the laundry room getting the towels and linens ready for the next day. Even though I was young and healthy, my back would ache by the end of the day and my hands would dry out and crack.

To top it off, the work was seasonal and there was no guarantee of continued employment. We were considered part time, so if the rooms weren’t all rented we’d sometimes finish by noon or 1 pm and only the person on laundry duty that day would get a full day’s work. Not a big deal for a college student with parents to fall back on, but a real problem if you’re trying to support a family.

2) Hotel maids really do lurk and wait for you to leave

Our usual assignment consisted of 12-15 rooms each. Each took about half an hour, so if no one checked out before 11 am, we would find it nearly impossible to get all the rooms done before check in time at 3 pm. Usually it all averaged out, but I spent a lot of time watching from the end of the hallway to see who was removing suitcases and loading up their car so I could swoop in the minute they left and get started. It was also a problem when people stayed multiple nights. We were expected to do a tidy up at some point during the day, but some people just wouldn’t leave their room. I really hated to have to knock on doors and ask, or worse yet, bring in towels and toiletries while a room full of people stared at me. So if you’re ever spending a day in your hotel room, do the maid a favour and tell her when you’ll be out or better yet, that you can survive 24 hours without someone picking up behind you. It will be appreciated.

3) (Some) people are pigs

I guess I’m lucky in that I never really experienced a “trashed” hotel room that summer. Most people, in fact, are pretty decent and treat hotel property with respect. There are even a few people that clean everything up behind themselves and leave the hotel room exactly how they found it. It’s actually a little creepy when that happens. It’s not like we don’t have to wipe everything down and change the linens anyway. Making your hotel bed doesn’t save anyone time. But there are always a few people that are complete and total slobs. Muddy boot prints across a nice new carpet. Cans of coke spilled on bedside tables and pizza mashed into the floor. Towels that were used to either clean a muddy mountain bike or a very large and dirty dog. You never knew what you would get when you opened that hotel room door and surprises were rarely a good thing.

4) People leave some crazy stuff behind

There was the men’s magazine left on the bed open to the June centerfold page. There was the diamond (I think) engagement ring sitting on the dresser, still in the box. On my second day at work, I found what I thought was a gun when I opened the nightstand drawer. (It turned out to be a very realistic looking gun shaped lighter.) We had a system of documenting anything valuable and keeping it in a lost and found, but a lot of what we found was junk. The best finds, however, were things that weren’t valuable, but could be used by the maids. Unopened candy bars or packages of cookies, cigarettes were always snapped up by the maids who smoked, and if you ever leave a nearly full bottle of high end conditioner behind in your hotel bathroom, you can rest assured that someone is probably making good use of it before too long.

5) Resort towns attract an interesting crowd

Twenty years ago, Canmore was kind of the poor sister to the resort town of Banff. It was a real working town, but in summer the population swelled with temporary workers, college students and outdoorsy types. Our hotel had two permanent employees, three of us who stayed the summer and a string of others who stayed for varying periods of time. Now, in hindsight, I was a very sheltered and innocent 18 year old and some of the people I found a bit shocking really weren’t all that strange. But there were others that I can think of now and think, “yeah, they were just plain nuts”.

6) Owning and/or running a hotel is really hard, too

Now I don’t know if this applies to chains and franchises, but I can see now that owning and running a small, independent hotel is an incredibly hard job. At the time, I thought of the couple who were my bosses as rich folks who bought a hotel and now got to tell all of us what to do. Now I can see how hard it would be to raise a young family while keeping up the crazy hours needed to actually make money at something like that. Having to decide whether to turn off the vacancy sign or spend another night sleeping in your clothes in the room behind the desk in case one more customer rolled in at 1 am. Dealing with complaints about drunk and rowdy guests in the middle of the night. Trying to manage a temporary work force of clueless teenagers. Never being able to take a holiday of your own without finding someone to replace you. Deciding whether to spend big bucks to upgrade and try to increase rates to make up the costs or get a few more years out of the current decor and keep rates lower. As much as I love staying in hotels, I’m sure glad I don’t have to run one.

As it turned out, that summer as a maid in Canmore was my last non-medical job. I started nursing school that September and was able to find work as a care aide in a nursing home the next summer. But I learned a lot that year and now I make a point of driving by my old hotel in Canmore every time we pass through on the way to visit the family each summer. And next time you stay in a hotel, spare a thought for the person who works hard to keep your room clean and tidy. And if you’re not going to eat that candy bar, make sure you leave it where she can find it!

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