Panic buttons rolling out for hotel housekeepers to combat sex assault

SEATTLE - Since the bombshell accusations against Harvey Weinstein broke back in October, much of the conversation surrounding sexual assault has stemmed from difficult personal stories that many Hollywood actresses have shared.

There is now a growing push extend the dialog to victims in other industries, particularly the hospitality industry.

Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich tweeted recently that that there may be “too much talk about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers,” asking if the dialogue has been “class-skewed.”

Abby Lawlor, a representative with Seattle’s hospitality workers union, Unite Here Local 8, says these employees are “particularly vulnerable.”

“A majority of our members are women or immigrants [or] people of color,” Lawlor said. “So they face additional barriers to coming forward to report harassment.”

In 2016, the union pushed Ballot Initiative 124 in Washington state to require, among other things, panic buttons for hotel staff, primarily housekeepers.

According to a survey conducted by the union, 53 percent of housekeepers in downtown Seattle hotels experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Lawlor says that has included “things ranging from walking in on naked guests to actually being groped or physically harassed by hotel guests.”

Hotel housekeeper Nuris Deres knows that feeling all too well. She still vividly remembers one day in particular when she was going about her daily duties in a local Seattle hotel.

“I knocked once.  No one answered, I continued to knock still no one answered, so I opened the door, when I entered the guest was completely naked,” Deres said.

Deres quickly left the man’s room before it could escalate but said there was no mistaking his intentions.

“He knew I was coming in and he wasn’t doing anything, he just had a smile on his face.”

Deres was five months pregnant at the time, so finding another job, she said, wasn’t an option at the time. She continued at the hotel, but found herself paranoid of certain male guests. She said she even began double locking a guest’s room from the inside so that if the guest returned while she was in there, she wouldn’t be caught off guard by them walking in.

The union-backed Initiative 124 passed with 77 percent of voters supporting it. Now, all hotels with more than 60 rooms are required to provide panic buttons that trigger some kind of alarm.

Seattle has not yet provided rules regarding the exact type of panic button that hotels are required to use. But one of the more common types of buttons currently in use in the city connects to software attached to the computers or mobile devices of hotel management. When a button is pushed, it tells management who needs help and even what room they are currently in.

The movement for hotel panic buttons began in New York City in 2012 in the wake of accusations leveled at then-head of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn when a hotel housekeeper said he sexually assaulted her. The charges were later dropped against Strauss-Kahn, but panic buttons became a new normal nonetheless.

In October, Chicago became the latest city requiring panic buttons for hotel staff.

But Seattle’s Initiative 124 has been met with criticism. In fact, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) filed a lawsuit--and subsequent appeal after a lower court’s dismissal-- that currently sits before the state Court of Appeals.

Representatives for the AHLA declined to speak on camera, but spokeswoman Rosanna Maietta said in a statement that their problem is not with the panic buttons themselves. Instead they say they have issues with additional provisions that were also mandated in Initiative 124 that had “nothing to do with protecting employees” like forcing hotels to keep a blacklist of hotel guests who have had complaints filed against them. Maietta said that “stripped our guests of their due process rights.”

Still, Nuris Deres believes the initiative is a step in the right directions. She’s telling her story because it’s the only way to help bring about change.

“So that’s why I’m motivated to speak out in hopes others will see this and do the same,” she said. 

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