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How a button became one of the greatest #MeToo victories

Inside hotel workers’ fight for their own safety.

A housekeeper at the Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel in Seattle’s Pioneer Square holds a device that lets her push a button and summon help if she is in a threatening situation while working.
Ted S. Warren/AP

Housekeeper Fatoumata Bah’s voice trembled as she described the fear she experiences every time she knocks on a guest’s door.

“Sometimes [the guests] stay in the room while you clean and you have no idea what they are going to do to you,” the Senegalese housekeeper at the Battery Wharf Hotel told me. “I’m so worried about my safety.”

She described an incident earlier this year in which a guest was so enraged, she thought he was going to beat her.

“He was right in front of my face yelling,” she said. “He could have hurt me and no one would know.”

When Bah ran out of the room and called security, she said no one came. No one even asked if she was okay. She still feels traumatized.

Bah is one of 75 workers at the iconic Boston hotel who have been on strike for nearly a month. One reason for the uprising: Managers don’t want to provide housekeepers with panic buttons, according to a spokeswoman for their labor union, Unite Here Local 26. (The Battery Wharf Hotel hasn’t responded to Vox’s request to comment.)

Panic buttons are GPS-enabled devices that alert security, and people can use them when they feel unsafe in a room. By pressing a button, often held in a pocket or clipped onto clothing, the device alerts security guards and gives them the person’s location.

Bah said it’s more important to her to get a panic button than a pay raise. For one, security guards will finally witness what housekeepers have to put up with, instead of assuming they’re lying to avoid cleaning rooms. Second, she could finally have some peace of mind.

Since the #MeToo movement took off in 2017, thousands of hotel housekeepers in eight major US cities and two states have fought for — and won — panic buttons to use at work. It’s an easy, straightforward solution to keeping workers safe. It’s also one of the biggest victories for workplace harassment in any industry.

Housekeeper Edna Vales shows her panic alarm issued to her by her employer at the Hilton hotel in Long Beach.

But that doesn’t mean the fight is over. While hotel chains, such as Marriott and Hyatt, have rolled out panic buttons for some workers, it wasn’t of their own accord. So far, these safety measures are mostly happening at hotels where housekeepers are unionized. Workers have had to fight for the panic buttons during contract negotiations, and like Bah, they’ve even had to go on strike.

It’s been up to the workers themselves to lead the charge.

The slow-building movement of the panic button

Those who now have the protection of a panic button say their workplace experience has been life-changing.

“I’m not terrified anymore. I feel calm,” Irene Sachar, a 61-year-old housekeeper, told me in Spanish over the phone. “Sometimes you enter a room, and you don’t know what surprises you’re going to find.”

Sachar has seen many surprises during her 11 years cleaning hotel rooms at the Hyatt Regency in Long Beach, California. Once a male guest let her into his room and started watching pornography. Others have walked around half-naked, covered only by a bath towel. Too many co-workers have been groped, harassed, and propositioned in isolated hotel rooms, she said.

The hotel ended up giving housekeepers panic buttons last year after voters in Long Beach approved a ballot measure that requires all large hotels in the city to provide them. At the time, union leaders said #MeToo had inspired them to push for a citywide solution to sexual harassment.

The need for panic buttons — and laws that mandate them — is more than two years old, however. Working-class women in the restaurant and hospitality industries have the highest rates of reported sexual harassment on the job. From 2005 to 2015, hotel and restaurant workers filed at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — more than representatives of any other industry, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

Housekeeper Edna Vales cleans a room at the Hilton hotel in Long Beach on September 14, 2017.
Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

But like most things that spark change, it took a high-profile case to bring attention to the issue. In 2011, a housekeeper at the upscale Sofitel hotel in Manhattan accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the leader of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault. Nafissatou Diallo said that Strauss-Kahn ran at her naked, molested her, and forced her to perform oral sex on him as she tried to clean his room. The claims led to a criminal investigation against the IMF chief and his house arrest in Manhattan. However, prosecutors eventually dropped charges of attempted rape, sex abuse, forcible touching, and unlawful imprisonment, citing “substantial credibility issues” with Diallo. Strauss-Khan ended up settling a civil lawsuit filed by Diallo in 2012.

Even though the criminal investigation collapsed, the shocking allegations brought attention to the risks hotel housekeepers face when they are alone with guests behind closed doors.

Since 2013, all unionized hotels in New York City — hundreds across the city — have equipped housekeepers with panic buttons to summon help. Housekeepers with Unite Here Local 6 managed to negotiate them into their labor contracts with hotels, inspiring workers across the country to do the same.

Cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and Santa Monica, California, have since passed similar laws in recent years. In Chicago, about 58 percent of hospitality workers said they have experienced sexual harassment on the job, according to a 2016 survey of 500 hospitality workers by the local Unite Here union. In October 2017, the city passed a law requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers who work alone; the state of Illinois did the same in August. New Jersey, the only other state to have such a law on the books, did so in June.

Since the #MeToo movement began, hotel housekeepers have felt more comfortable coming forward, testifying in front of lawmakers, and talking to the press. And for a change, people have paid attention.

Las Vegas could be the tipping point of industry-wide change

In perhaps one of the most significant showings in the industry, housekeepers and cocktail servers who work at the largest casinos in Las Vegas will soon carry panic buttons allowing them to call for help if they experience sexual harassment or abuse on the job.

Two major casino operators, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, agreed in contract negotiations with unions in July 2018 to give panic buttons to workers who are vulnerable to sexual harassment. The labor contracts cover 36,000 service workers at the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, the Mirage, MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, and other iconic casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, according to the Culinary Workers Union’s Local 226.

Las Vegas casino housekeepers, bartenders, and cocktail servers have been pushing managers to protect them from harassment as the #MeToo movement gathered steam; this especially hit home after news broke that casino titan Steve Wynn allegedly harassed and sexually assaulted female workers at his casinos. Wynn has denied the allegations.

About 59 percent of the Las Vegas cocktail servers and 27 percent of the hotel housekeepers said they had been sexually harassed by guests, managers, or others while on the job, according to a May survey of more than 10,000 casino workers. About 72 percent of the Las Vegas cocktail servers and 53 percent of the hotel housekeepers surveyed said guests had done something to make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

“We are here to do our jobs and provide incredible, world-class customer service for our guests,” Maria Landeros, a housekeeper at the MGM Grand, told the Culinary Union at the time. “We are not here to be abused or have people think that just because it’s Las Vegas anything goes.”

Winning panic buttons for hotel workers in Las Vegas may be a turning point that leads to industry-wide change, considering it’s the US city with the largest number of hotel rooms.

Hotels are promising to tackle sexual harassment

Most hotels that are ordering panic buttons are doing so because union contracts require it. But since #MeToo forced a spotlight on workplace harassment, the largest US hotel chains have also promised to give buttons to housekeepers at all their hotels.

A spokesperson for Marriott International told me the company plans to roll out the panic buttons at all its properties in the US and Canada by the end of 2020. The chain is currently working with a vendor to provide the safety devices.

“At Marriott International, we believe that everyone should feel safe while fulfilling their work responsibilities,” a spokesperson for the chain wrote in a statement to Vox.

Marriott is one of 17 hotel brands that signed the 5-Star Promise in September 2018, vowing to implement certain policies and technologies by the end of 2020 to keep employees safe. The pledge includes providing employee panic devices, having anti-harassment policies in place in multiple languages, and offering ongoing employee training and education on preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association, a hospitality industry group that proposed the pledge, said more than 50 hotel chains have now made the same commitment.

“We have a responsibility to ensure [employees] feel safe and secure,” Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said in a statement to Vox. “Hotels continuously evaluate and evolve their policies, trainings, and technologies to foster a safe environment and empower our employees.”

However, housekeepers and unions are skeptical that hotels will voluntarily do what’s right.

“No major employers have given union or non-union hotels any panic buttons or other sexual harassment protections to date unless required to by law or contract,” Rachel Gumpert, a spokesperson for Unite Here, told Vox in an email. She added that they also want hotels to ban guests who harass or threaten housekeepers.

With hundreds of cities and 48 states still without legal protections, more hotel workers will likely follow the path of Bah and those before them — and refuse to work until they get them.

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