Panic Buttons Could Sound the Alarm on Hotel Worker Assaults (Corrected)

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By Fatima Hussein

Hollywood moved the #MeToo movement into the spotlight, but workers in low-paying jobs who have been sexually assaulted are beginning to see major shifts toward better safety in their workplaces, too.

Legislation protecting hotel workers from sexual assault proliferated over the past six years, with ordinances passed in Chicago and Seattle. Now, California, Miami Beach, and Las Vegas are considering similar laws that require hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers who face the threat of assault in guest rooms.

Housekeepers can activate electronic buttons—worn on the wrist or a lanyard—to summon immediate help from hotel security when they work alone in guest rooms.

One bill—AB 1761—authored by California Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) in January, would provide panic buttons for housekeepers and blacklist certain hotel guests accused of assault. The bill’s language is modeled on Seattle’s existing ordinance that maintains a list of potentially unscrupulous hotel guests.

The bill is set to be heard May 2 in a California Assembly committee on labor and employment.

Many Perspectives, One Issue

Muratsuchi tells Bloomberg Environment that the bill builds on the momentum of the #MeToo movement.

But the California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a “job killer,” with a representative saying the blacklist would deter consumers from staying in California hotels. And the bill also poses due process concerns for hotel guests who may have never committed a criminal act, said Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association in Sacramento.

But some hotel workers say protection couldn’t come sooner.

A server who works at a Marriott-owned hotel in Seattle told Bloomberg Environment that she’s been grabbed by customers in the more than 40 years that she’s been at the company. The server spoke to Bloomberg Environment anonymously for fear of being fired.

A representative from Marriott didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment requests for comment.

“I’ve seen baristas horribly abused by customers,” she said. “I think the panic buttons should be in every bar too.”

Trading Protection for Due Process

While worker rights activists point to the fact that stats are hard to come by since so many workers are undocumented and don’t report their assaults, more than 58 percent of housekeepers experience some form of sexual harassment on the job, according to a Unite Here! Local 1 study conducted on Chicago hotel workers in 2016.

Unite Here! is a labor union that represents hotel, food service, custodial, and other workers in the U.S. and Canada.

There are an estimated 48,900 housekeepers in California alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If passed, the panic button law could cost the hotel industry millions.

Conservative estimates of the cost to hotels could range anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 per hotel to outfit workers with panic buttons, said Marina Willis, former CEO of PinPoint Wire Technologies, a Birmingham, Ala., manufacturer of the buttons.

Willis told Bloomberg Environment that the buttons are silent and, when pressed, notify management immediately so that “assistance can come as soon as minutes,” she said.

It’s the cost and the blacklist that have hotel groups wary of the legislation.

“Obviously, no one wants to see women harassed in the workplace,” said Marti Fisher, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce in Sacramento. “This particular policy on its face, it would be very costly to implement and would alienate our guests.”

There are other implications as well.

“An employee would merely be able to tell management that they want someone on a blacklist,” Fisher told Bloomberg Environment.

Despite hoteliers’ complaints, they may not have a legal leg to stand on. In June 2017, a King County Superior Court judge in Seattle ruled in favor of the city of Seattle against the American Hotel & Lodging Association when it held that hotel blacklists don’t violate state and federal constitutional laws.

While Muratsuchi said the blacklist is to meant to “identify repeat bad actors to attempt to ban them from hotels,” Mohrfield said the California Hotel & Lodging Association may bring a lawsuit if the California bill passes.

“We don’t think this [panic button] will move the ball forward,” he told Bloomberg Environment.

Union-Backed Issue

Voices in labor contend that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration won’t get involved in regulating sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, so they should seek regulation through collective bargaining and demonstrations.

Various Unite Here! local unions prompted the use of panic buttons through their collective bargaining process in New York and Washington.

“This has been an issue long before the #MeToo movement,” said Rachel Gumpert, spokeswoman for Unite Here! in Washington.

Unite Here! helped to bargain initial sets of panic button rules in 2013, after French diplomat Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly raped a hotel housekeeper at the Sofitel New York Hotel in 2011. The incident has raised the profile of housekeeper safety, organizers said.

Since then, the union has been active in getting panic buttons into hotels through the collective bargaining process, and increasingly, through legislative action.

Unite Here! plans to demonstrate at Marriott’s next shareholder meeting May 4, Gumpert said. The plan is to have a woman who was assaulted by a guest at a Marriott hotel speak on stage, she said.

“We feel that if the Marriott wants to turn away these women, it’s a story on its own,” Gumpert said.

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