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Monday, 16 July 2018 07:30

Hotel Workers Battle Sexual Harassment and Abuse

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hotelberkHotel workers daily face the risk of sexual harassment. (Photo: Frans de Wilde)

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Hospitality workers face higher levels of sexual harassment then most workers in other industries. Guests grope, proposition, verbally harass, and frequently expose themselves to housekeepers. “Hotel housekeepers work alone, cleaning rooms,” Karen Kent, president of the Chicago chapter of the hospitality union UNITE HERE, told NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition in late November. “And oftentimes, there's a power imbalance between the women who clean them, who are often women of color, immigrants, and guests who have those rooms who pay hundreds of dollars a night. If something happens with the guests, they often can't be heard or possibly can't even get away.”

UNITE HERE, a labor union representing workers in the hospitality industry, is fighting for measures that will protect workers. “Advocates hope the use of panic buttons will eliminate some of the barriers that have kept women – especially minorities and those from low-income communities — from reporting sexual harassment,” wamu.org’s Samantha Raphelson recently reported.

A Personal Aside: Other than a fire alarm going off at three in the morning, which forced everyone to evacuate the building, our stay at the Residence Inn by Marriott San Francisco Airport/Oyster Point Waterfront was uneventful. After a month in the hospital starting her recovery after a double-lung transplant, my wife and I were required to spend six weeks in close proximity to the hospital, to be there for three-times-a-week appointments, and in case any complications arose. When friends asked about being at the Residence Inn, I’d tell them that “the breakfasts were great.” The breakfasts were great because of the hardworking kitchen staff. The rooms were cleaned and restocked by reliable and thorough housekeepers. Front desk agents were hospitable and readily answered all questions. Groundskeepers kept the surroundings clean and manicured.

In late June, hospitality workers represented by UNITE HERE held demonstrations in a number of cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Jose. The demonstrations were aimed at highlighting multiple issues: establishing a living wage for workers, protecting them from sexual harassment and assault, and they called attention to how the implementation of new technology could be deleterious to the workforce.

As veteran labor journalist/photographer David Bacon recently pointed out at his blog, Close to 20,000 Marriott workers are represented by UNITE HERE and, according to Bacon, “some 12,000 of those employees have contracts expiring later this year.” The slogan of the ongoing campaign is “One Job Should Be Enough.”

UNITE HERE, according to its website, is made up of “working people, coming together to win dignity and higher standards in the hospitality industry and beyond.” The organization “represents workers throughout the U.S. and Canada who work in the hotel, gaming, food service, airport, textile, manufacturing, distribution, laundry, and transportation industries.”

Women being sexually harassed and assaulted is fairly common in the hospitality industry. UNITE HERE “estimates that the majority of their members who are housekeepers have faced sexual harassment on the job,” NPR’s Samantha Raphelson reported.

In her analysis of unpublished data on sexual harassment charges in the private sector filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over the past decade, the Center for American Progress’ Jocelyn Frye found that sexual harassment of both men and women are prevalent “in every industry and in every corner of the workforce.”

According to Frye, the findings reveal that “More than one-quarter of sexual harassment charges were filed in industries with large numbers of service-sector workers, including many low-wage jobs that are often occupied by women.” She pointed out that “Nearly three-quarters of sexual harassment charges include an allegation of retaliation either upon being filed or later on in an investigation, suggesting that many victims face retribution when they come forward.”

Abby Lawler, a researcher with UNITE HERE explained that, "Guest nudity was the most common experience in our survey that housekeepers had, but also experiences of verbal harassment, guests soliciting housekeepers was also a frequent occurrence, and then incidents of groping and cornering and other forms of physical intimidation and harassment." 

Marriott International, which includes brands like Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels, Westin and the recently acquired Starwood Hotels, became the largest hotel company in the world with its purchase of Starwood last year. USA Today pointed out that “It now has more than 1.2 million rooms [in 6,500 properties] in 127 countries and territories.” According to Money, Marriott International “drew in more than $22 billion in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the company’s website.”

UNITE HERE is advocating the use of panic buttons by hospitality workers. According to wamu.org, “Advocates hope the use of panic buttons will eliminate some of the barriers that have kept women – especially minorities and those from low-income communities — from reporting sexual harassment.”

Unfortunately, ‘The American Hotel & Lodging Association, whose members include the hotel chains Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton, filed a lawsuit in December 2016 challenging Seattle’s ordinance requiring panic buttons and other protections for hotel workers.”

In a more positive development, Vox recently reported that “Housekeepers and cocktail servers who work at the largest casinos in Las Vegas [MGM Resorts International and Caesar’s Entertainment], will soon carry panic buttons allowing them to call for help if they experience sexual harassment or abuse on the job.”

On July 1, thechicagocitizen.com that “a new city ordinance went into effect known as the Hands Off, Pants On ordinance. The new safety measure provides certain hotel workers in Chicago with panic buttons that would allow them to call for help if they were in a dangerous situation while at work.” 

“We know that every brand looks to what Marriott is giving workers to set the standard for what they need to do,” Rachel Gumpert a spokesperson for UNITE HERE, told Money. “If we’re able to secure these changes, not only will it impact more workers, but we’ll also be raising standards for the entire industry.”