Aldermen narrow focus of measure requiring ‘panic button’ for some hotel workers

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Four months ago, the City Council champion of a groundbreaking “panic button” ordinance aimed at shielding Chicago hotel workers from sexual harassment was accused of sponsoring a loophole that would weaken the protection and “perpetuate a climate of silence and fear.”

On Wednesday, Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) persuaded the Committee on Workforce Development to narrow the focus of her “Hands Off, Pants On” ordinance, this time with support from Unite Here Local 1, which represents hotel workers.

The reason for the union’s about-face was unclear. The language of the amendment is virtually identical to the one they opposed in February.

It redefines employees who must receive mandatory panic buttons as those who “clean, inventory, inspect or re-stock supplies” in hotel guest rooms or restrooms.

The change would also cover hotel employees who don’t normally clean rooms, but are reassigned to do so. Those who re-stock mini-bars also are covered. The ordinance is scheduled to take effect on July 1.

“The spirit of the ordinance says that it’s to protect women working alone in a room. That would limit it to a finite number of people. The present ordinance right now, would have hotels buying one for every employee. It’s not fair to them,” Harris said.

“We want the union to get what they want. And we want the hotels to get what they need and signed onto.”

Nearly 60 percent of hotel workers surveyed last fall by Unite Here Local 1 reported being 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.

In light of those shocking statistics, Harris was asked why she doesn’t just err on the side of caution and require panic buttons for every hotel employee?

“These devices have turned out to be a lot more expensive than anybody thought. … They’re in the range of $100-to-$200 each. It’s an unfunded mandate that the hotels just didn’t budget for,” Harris said.

Northwest Side Ald. John Arena (45th) argued that women who work hotel maintenance should be permanently assigned a panic button. They shouldn’t have to pick one up depending on their duties that day.

Howard Kilberg, counsel for the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels, said both hotels are all for the “spirit and intent” of the ordinance.

But Kilberg argued that the definition of the term “guest room” is overly broad and includes rooms that are “not occupied and not rented out.”

He urged alderman to exempt rooms cleaned by hotel employees, but “not rented to a guest or comped to an organization or guest” and to relax the July 1 effective date to give hotels 90 days more to comply.

“We are faced … with facilities that are not accommodating all of the current technology. And we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit 70 floors of the hotel because the system has to go through the entire hotel down to the seventh-floor,” Kilberg said.

“I can assure the committee that it will be resolved. But I do not believe it will be thoroughly resolved by July 1.”

Kilberg noted that hotels failing to meet the July 1 deadline risk losing their city licenses.

“It’s an excessive, unfair, unjustified penalty when a hotel — and we’re not the only ones — is trying to accommodate the spirit of the ordinance and making sure that every one of our employees is in possession of and knows how to use the panic button,” Kilberg said.

Aldermen took no action on Kilberg’s suggestions.

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