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Are panic buttons the solution for harassed hotel workers?

A housekeeper cleaning a hotel room. Would a panic button be a solution to battle instances of sexual harassment?
A housekeeper cleaning a hotel room. Would a panic button be a solution to battle instances of sexual harassment?
Credit: Zachary Long
A housekeeper cleaning a hotel room. Would a panic button be a solution to battle instances of sexual harassment?
Screenshot of Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who represents the 66th California Assembly District.

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The #MeToo movement has sparked a reckoning, exposing the harassment that many women and girls face every day. While it started in the entertainment industry, it has touched nearly every industry. Now, California wants to tackle the sexual harassment of hotel workers.

Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi from Torrance co-authored a bill that would require hotels to provide a "panic button" device.

"This bill is intended to make workplaces safer for hotel housekeepers who, more often than not, are working women who are most vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Many of these women are working class immigrants, Latino and Asian, and they often work alone in hotel rooms, sometimes with male guests in the room at the same time, placing them at risk for sexual harassment ... so we want to make their workplace safer by requiring their employers to provide panic buttons."

The proposed legislation would also require hotels to impose a three-year ban on any guest who harasses an employee and give mandatory paid time off for employees to contact police or lawyers, if necessary.

Other cities in the U.S., such as Long Beach, have considered similar measures. The hotel industry opposes the idea and has raised questions about whether such buttons are practical, effective or needed.

Last year, the Unite Here union, which represents workers in the hospitality industry throughout the United States and Canada, released a survey of roughly 500 of its Chicago-area members.  The report, titled "Hands Off, Pants On," found that 49 percent of housekeepers reported they'd had guests answer the door naked, expose themselves or flash them.

Take Two spoke to Nereyda Soto, a Long Beach hotel employee who is involved with the local chapter of the Unite Here union. She recalls being harassed by a hotel guest.

"When I first started working, a guest stalked me for over five days of his stay and at the end of his stay, he gave me his room key... When I gave him his check, and he said, 'Oh, I bet you would look really good out of your clothes,'... it was very disturbing... I was working at the restaurant, so I had a place to hide... But my co-workers that work on these floors, the hotel is 17 floors high, where are they going to go, if this man comes to them?"

Rosanna Maietta, the Senior Vice President of Communications and Public Relations at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, issued this statement:

“The hotel and lodging industry has made the safety of both employees and guests a top priority. For this reason, our properties have in place safety standards, our employees receive comprehensive and ongoing trainings, and AHLA has partnered with nationally recognized non-profits and developed tailored trainings for the industry. As headlines over recent months have shown, no industry is immune to dealing with sexual harassment. Our industry has in place procedures and protocols for employees around reporting and prevention, and these are continuously reviewed and updated. As an industry, we will continue our work, day in and day out, with a focus on ensuring America’s hotels are secure places for all those who work and visit them. We hope that the state legislature will give this matter serious thought and work together with our industry to ensure commonsense policies that empower employees, maintain the proper role of law enforcement and provide a safe working environment.”

Muratsuchi's bill has begun working its way through the California legislature.