‘Panic button’ ordinance for hotel workers sends a strong #MeToo message

SHARE ‘Panic button’ ordinance for hotel workers sends a strong #MeToo message

Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent. Unionized workers at 30 Chicago hotels will take a strike authorization vote Wednesday that threatens to ground the local tourism industry, at least temporarily. | Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

Think back to when the #MeToo floodgates began to open in Hollywood. On the red carpet at the Oscars, sisterhood was alive and well. But many of us asked: Where are voices of low-wage women in this movement?

On Sunday, if you listen closely, you may hear bells ringing and women singing, to welcome a new day in Chicago. On July 1, 2018, the landmark “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance goes into full effect, requiring Chicago hotels to provide panic buttons to all hotel workers who clean, restock, or take inventory alone in guest rooms and rest rooms. It was the women hospitality workers of UNITE HERE Local 1 who came together, spoke out, and with the support of the Chicago Federation of Labor, won this innovative policy to help address a long-standing problem.


The “Hands Off Pants On” campaign began nearly two years before this watershed #MeToo moment. In 2016, a team of six women from UNITE HERE Local 1 conducted a groundbreaking survey of nearly 500 women working in Chicagoland hotels and casinos. The results were shocking:

  • 58% of hotel workers surveyed had been sexually harassed by a guest.
  • 49% of hotel housekeepers surveyed said a guest had exposed themselves, flashed them, or answered the door naked.

With the Chicago Federation of Labor, we advocated for the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance to better protect Chicago hotel workers from sexual harassment and assault. In October 2017, that ordinance was passed in the Chicago City Council. I’ll never forget the cheers and tears among the women in the council chambers that day.

Passing the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance sends a powerful, much-needed message to women in the field of hospitality that we are being seen and heard. In addition to the panic button mandate, the new law requires Chicago hotels to establish a written anti-sexual harassment policy that allows hotel workers to stop work and leave the immediate area if they feel they are being sexually harassed; provide the hotel worker paid time off to file a police report if they chose to; and give the hotel worker a temporary work assignment away from the offending guest. Perhaps most importantly, the ordinance protects all hotel workers from retaliation when they come forward with complaints about guest harassment.

Since the policy provisions of the ordinance went in to effect in January 2018, we’ve observed a shifting away from a culture that permeates the hospitality industry that the “guest is always right.” Our union shop stewards provide key support to their co-workers in the process of reporting and availing themselves of the rights under the ordinance. The feedback we’ve heard is that the validation, support, and the feeling that “I’m not alone” have been some of the most impactful results of the campaign.

Now we need to ensure that all Chicago hotel workers are not just aware of the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance, but that they also feel empowered to avail themselves of their rights. We know that words on paper do not mean anything without consequences for those who violate the ordinance. We have made important strides in breaking the silence and creating space for women to come forward. Strong enforcement of this ordinance is critical to ensuring that hotel workers feel supported when they speak up.

As a city, we must reaffirm the ordinance’s message to women in Chicago’s hospitality industry: We hear you, we believe you, and we will back you up. In our collective efforts, we may move one step closer to ending sexual harassment for good.

Karen Kent serves as President of UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers union. UNITE HERE Local 1 represents over 15,000 hotel, casino, and food service workers in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

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