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A challenge and a privilege

It’s possible to find inspiration and moments of joy in the darkest times,as this emotional and honest account reveals.

The experience of Donna McWey, head housekeeper at the Cheval Residences serviced apartments in London, provides a story of personal and professional turmoil during the pandemic to which many of us will relate.

We should start though back in January 2020, when she returned to work after recovering from surgery. The apartments’ owners announced a full refurbishment of the building was planned, which would see a lengthy closure. However, along came Covid-19 and everything changed. Cheval Residences would stay open throughout, providing a full level of service and comfort to long-term residents and those who needed to travel for medical treatment.

“The first few weeks of lockdown were a really anxious time, with employees concerned about the spread of Covid-19 and finding their feet in uncertain times,” McWey recalls. “However, we soon fell into a routine of taking our temperature on arrival, wearing masks for all interactions with guests and each other, constant hand washing and social distancing.”

The concierge team took on hourly sanitising of all ‘high touch’ areas in lifts and public areas, while room attendants sanitised apartments. In the first lockdown staff worked a week of 80 hours over seven days, staying in apartments and travelling by personal car or taxi to work, avoiding public transport. They felt well protected. The following week would then be spent at home with family.

Apartment cleaning times were extended to make life easier for room attendants wearing masks. The guests ranged from those who had to be reminded about social distancing to others who chose to self-isolate, fearful of team members infecting them, but soon reverting to full service when they understood the precautions taken.

McWey says 9am housekeeping meetings became a favourite time of day: “One week we took turns to talk about our lives before Cheval, where we had grown up, what our childhoods had been like, where we had worked and what our dreams and aspirations were. I will never forget how emotional and at the same time heart-warming these stories were.”

After the first lockdown, with some staff on furlough, two chose to take up voluntary redundancy, while others returned to normal working hours. Instead of closing, a partial refurbishment of 20 apartments began in September 2020.

In preparation of any guest case of Covid, they had good supplies of PPE and an electrostatic sprayer ready to sanitise apartments at the end of isolation or on departure. Guests in isolation had contactless deliveries of bedding, towelling and food. McWey’s team double bagged and dated everything coming out of these apartments, placing them in safe storage for 72 hours before disposing of rubbish and sending linen out for processing.

“On a more personal note, just before lockdown my mother was diagnosed with dementia. As she lived on her own, I continued to visit regularly, along with her carers. She did not understand why she needed to stay away from neighbours or why we were all wearing masks and gloves.”

In November her mother was admitted to a care home and McWey found this a ‘breaking point’: “The previous nine months had been extremely difficult, seeing my mum deteriorate and trying to manage work and personal commitments. I felt a great deal of guilt and needed little provocation to burst into tears. I also began to miss work deadlines, and this resulted in more stress, as I felt so bad for letting people down.” On top of that she went through four isolation periods due to the NHS track and trace notifications.

Team members have also experienced devastating personal loss and mental health worries: “It has been both a challenge and a privilege to support these individuals during their struggles and this continues to be one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve dealt with during my 37 years as a housekeeper.” The residence has chosen to support Hospitality Action for 2021. As McWey concludes: “Better times are coming!”

Donna McWey, second right, with some of The Cheval Residences team
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