California may require hotels to equip housekeepers with panic buttons

Piggybacking on the #MeToo movement, support is gaining momentum nationwide to protect hotel housekeepers from sexual harassment by guests, by requiring hotels to provide them with panic buttons.

In California, just such a bill (Assembly Bill 1761) was introduced on Jan. 4.

Sexual harassment of hotel room cleaners is fairly widespread. A 2016 survey of nearly 500 housekeepers in Chicago found 58 percent of hotel workers said they had been sexually harassed by a guest. More than 49 percent of workers have had a guest answer the door naked.

The report, titled “Hands Off, Pants On,” was issued by the Chicago chapter for Unite Here, a union that represents hospitality workers nationwide.

Further, nearly 15 percent have been cornered by a guest; nearly 10 percent have been touched; and up to 25 percent have either felt pressured for dates or sexual favors or received unwanted sexual attention or gestures

Nearly all, 96 percent of the housekeepers said they would feel safer if they were equipped with a wearable panic button, according to the report.

The buttons are worn or carried and can either emit a loud noise or a strobe light, and cost about $12–$29.

The concept is not new. Since 2013, New York City housekeepers in unionized hotels have been equipped with the buttons.

The move was in response to a union effort after a maid accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-leader of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault, according to numerous reports. She sued him and the suit was settled for $1.5 million in 2012.

Seattle and Chicago joined the fray in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

In Seattle, hotel workers carry electronic whistles and GPS-equipped buttons to alert security or iPads with emergency alert functions.

In Las Vegas, the union representing tens of thousands of hotel workers have asked casino operators to provide the buttons as well.

Hyatt Hotels has also issued panic buttons for housekeepers across all of its hotels, including the Andaz Napa in downtown Napa. All 15 housekeepers there were issued the buttons last year, and no one has had to use it yet, according to the hotel.

Oxford Hotels and Suites, with nationwide locations, has been discussing the issue and will make a decision in the next month, said Gennero Filice, assistant general manager at Oxford Suites Sonoma County in Rohnert Park.

With 600,000 hotel rooms, there are 99,000 maids and housekeepers in California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

County measures are already in place as of this month in the unincorporated areas of Sacramento County where hotels with 25 rooms or more are required to provide housekeepers with panic buttons. The effective date is still being determined, according to a county spokesperson.

The county doesn't specify what kind of device the hotels must provide for their housekeepers and other employees, but stated that they “can be used quickly and easily to create a noise loud enough to alert others to the employee's location.”

According to Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association, the industry's state lobbying organization, there are “a ton of issues” with a portion of the current proposal for panic buttons.

According to the California bill, any complaint backed by evidence including a statement given under penalty of perjury would result in the hotel's obligation to ban that customer from the entire hotel for three years.

The question is how the blacklist would be enforced.

“I'm scratching my head as to how we can legally implement that. You would have to provide all employees of photos of the guest,” Mohrfeld said. “It's is untenable and there's no way we can do it.”

There is no requirement in the bill that the hotel notify the person who has been banned.

And blacklisting would also give the guest the opportunity for litigation against the housekeeper, “Something we surely don't want,” Mohrfeld said.

The buttons could also get costly for hotels, which would also have to provide safety training on use of the devices, and make sure they are kept in working order and any batteries are working.

Another issue is that people tend to run away from loud noises, not towards them, thus defeating the purpose of summoning help by using the device. Also, who is the best person suited to come to the housekeeper's aid?

Lodging facilities will also be required to post notice on the inside of the rooms' doors stating that panic buttons are provided to hotel employees. But it is questionable about how much of a deterrent that would be, Mohrfeld said.

The buttons could alleviate the problem of the significant number of women who experience sexual harassment who do not come forward to report it. Of the hospitality workers surveyed in Chicago, only 33 percent said they told their supervisor or manager when a guest sexually harassed them. The most common reasons given for not reporting related to a belief that little can be done to address indecent guest behavior.

Of the hotel workers surveyed who said they never or sometimes report a guest's harassment, 43 percent said they knew someone who reported sexual harassment and nothing changed.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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