Hotels urged to combat sexual harassment against female employees

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Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) held a news conference Tuesday to push legislation to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

A veteran hotel housekeeper on Tuesday told a harrowing story of sexual harassment on the job to make the case for mandatory safety measures to protect hotel workers and end what advocates call the “sisterhood of silence.”

Fifty-eight percent of hotel workers surveyed last fall by Unite Here Local 1 reported having been sexually harassed by a guest. Forty-nine percent of hotel housekeepers reported that guests had exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door stark naked.

Those are not just statistics to an eight-year veteran housekeeper named Estella, who declined to give her last name or identify the hotel where she works.

At a City Hall news conference Tuesday, Estella talked about the abuse she was forced to endure recently twice over a three-month period.

“I open the door. Nobody answer. I ring the bell. Nobody answer. And when I went [in] the room . . . [he] was nude in the room. He was masturbating,” Estella said.

“Earphones is the excuse . . . I talk to my manager. I can’t clean the room. I [cannot] go back to the room. I was so afraid . . . My manager say, `Why you not tell us right away?’ How? I told her that happened to me at the end of the day. The next day, she told me, `Call me when you go to the room again and I can go with you.’”

The next day, Estelle said she went to the clean the room with a co-worker as back-up. But the guest wasn’t there.

“I clean the room. I go back later. But he followed me to the next room and asking me for a towel. So I went to [get] the towel. I knock the door again. No answer me. And I found him nude in the bathroom waiting for me,” she said.

At a City Council meeting on Wednesday, Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) plans to introduce an ordinance to give female hotel works like Estella some measure of protection.

It would require hotels to provide employees working alone with portable panic buttons akin to a Medic-Alert warn by senior citizens.

If an incident occurs, the worker could push the panic button and hotel security would be alerted. Instead of connecting the panic button to 911 and summoning overburdened police officers, Harris said she decided to trust hotel security.

The ordinance would also require hotels to “develop, maintain and comply with a written, anti-sexual harassment policy.”

It would allow the complaining employee to “cease work and leave the immediate area where danger is perceived” until hotel security personnel or police arrive. Sexually harassed employees would also be allowed to work on a “different floor” until the offending guest checks out of the hotel.

Hotels would also be prohibited from retaliating against employees who report abuse.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez said he was “shocked, dismayed and embarrassed” when he agreed to participate in a video that featured male labor leaders reading the stories of women who had been harassed or assaulted on the job.

“I read incident after incident of male guests verbally degrading or physically assaulting female hospitality workers,” Ramirez said.

“While it was uncomfortable for me to read these words out loud, I cannot even begin to imagine how [it] must have felt to live through these experiences. To have these words said to them. To be groped or to be objectified in front of a table of complete strangers. No one — and I mean no one — should ever have to know what that feels like.”

Karen Kent, president of Unite Here Local 1 representing hospitality workers, was a member of what she called the “Sisterhood of Silence.”

She was harassed while working a job she loved — as a waitress — during the 1990s.

“A man who was much older made an unwelcome advance. I broke free from his grip and ran to get help. I was ashamed. I was scared and I was humiliated. I felt degraded,” Kent said Tuesday.

“What happened? Nothing. Twenty-five years went by. I told no one. The first time I shared that story with anyone was two years ago. That was the first time I said anything. The truth is, there’s a sisterhood of silence when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Secret stories . . . are tucked away deep inside every woman. Women that you know.”

Marc Gordon, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, and Katherine Lugar, his counterpart at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said the industry is “constantly updating our protocols and procedures to better address our employees’ needs and ensure their safety.”

The national trade group has partnered with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence to launch a training program for hospitality employees aimed at “identifying signs of sexual violence, ways to offer support and practical ways employees can ensure a safer, more supportive workplace,” they said.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual harassment, no industry is immune. That’s why our employees receive extensive training to protect themselves against harassment and other criminal activity, and are encouraged to notify their supervisors and management teams and law enforcement when appropriate,” Gordon and Lugar were quoted as saying in an emailed statement.

“While we will await to see the final ordinance when it is introduced, we hope the elected representatives of the people of Chicago 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.”

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