Hands Off, Pants On: Is It Time for Panic Buttons?

A recent survey of women working in Chicago area hotels and casinos offered some startling insights: 58 percent of the hotel workers said they had been sexually harassed by a guest, and 49 percent of surveyed housekeepers said guests had exposed themselves, flashed them, or answered the door naked. 

One hotel housekeeper described her experience: "He was completely naked, standing between the bed and the desk. He asked me for shampoo. I had to jump over the beds in order to get to the door and leave the room." Another said: "I do not feel safe because of the things that I have encountered. One guest was masturbating. I felt very afraid." 

UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents Chicagoland hospitality workers, published the survey results about a year ago, and the Chicago City Council addressed the issue with the "Hands Off Pants On" ordinance, adopted Oct. 11. The ordinance requires hotel employers to provide "panic buttons," modeled after medical alert buttons for the elderly, so employees who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms will be able to signal for help when they feel threatened or unsafe. 

The ordinance isn’t the first of its kind and may be part of a growing trend in establishing requirements for employers to protect workers who might fall prey to sexual harassment or misconduct.

How Did We Get Here?

The vulnerability of hotel workers isn’t an issue that suddenly emerged in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. An earlier development involving another high-profile figure occurred back in 2011, when a 32-year-old maid at the Sofitel New York Hotel accused former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her in his hotel suite. 

Although charges were later dropped against Strauss-Kahn, another high-profile accusation followed just weeks later. A housekeeper at the Pierre hotel accused Egyptian bank executive Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar of forcibly kissing and groping her after she delivered a box of tissues to his hotel room. Omar was charged with and pled guilty to sexual abuse. 

Those cases shed light on a problem that UNITE HERE Local 1 sums up this way: "There is an inherent power imbalance between a man who can pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel room and the woman who cleans that room. When a guest sexually harasses or assaults a hotel worker, it happens in the absence of surveillance cameras or witnesses." 

The Sofitel and the Pierre hotels responded by equipping housekeepers with panic buttons. Later that year, two hotels in the District of Columbia—the Carlyle Suites in Dupont Circle and the Savoy Suites in Glover Park—followed suit. And in 2012, operators of the biggest hotels in New York City agreed by union contract to give workers panic buttons. 

In late 2016, Seattle voters approved an ordinance that requires hotel employers to provide panic buttons. And earlier this year, 30 D.C.-area hotels agreed to provide the buttons under union contract. 

The Chicago Ordinance

The "Hands Off Pants On" ordinance requires Chicago hotels to provide panic buttons by July 1, 2018, and it also includes several other requirements. By Jan. 7, 2018, hotel employers must develop, maintain, and comply with written sexual harassment policies that:

 Encourage hotel workers to report sexual harassment and assault by guests;

 Describe the procedures that the employee and the hotel will follow when harassment or assault is reported;

 Instruct employees to stop working and leave an area of perceived danger until assistance arrives;

 Offer temporary work assignments to the complaining employee for the duration of the offending guest’s stay at the hotel;

 Provide employees with paid time off to file police reports or testify as a witness in any legal proceedings arising from the incident;

 Inform employees that the Illinois Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance provide additional protections against sexual harassment in the workplace; and

 Inform employees that they will not be retaliated against for reasonably using a panic button or notification device. 

Employers that violate Chicago’s ordinance can be fined from $250 to $500 per violation, per day. Employers that have two or more violations in any 12-month period can have their licenses revoked by the city. 

Beyond Hotels, Beyond Harassment

While hotels arguably outstrip other work environments as a hotbed for unwanted sexual conduct, threatening and intimidating situations can occur across all sorts of workplaces, making panic buttons useful beyond the hospitality industry. 

For example, hospitals and schools have started using them to protect against safety risks. In addition, they’ve long been used in banks as a way to call for help in the event of a robbery. 

The bottom line is that enabling workers to get help quickly can prevent more than just harassment, making it easier to detect and respond to safety or security threats of all kinds.

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