After an emotional appeal from hotel workers who claim to have been sexually harassed, a City Council committee on Monday approved mandatory safety measures to protect them.
The ordinance is championed by Rules Committee Chairwoman Michelle Harris (8th) and embraced by Unite Here Local 1 to end what a union leader has called the “sisterhood of silence.”
It would require hotels to provide employees working alone with portable panic buttons — akin to a Medic-Alert worn by senior citizens — that would alert hotel security. 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, and sexually harassed employees would be allowed to work on a different floor until the offending guest checks out of the hotel.
Hotels would be required to have the written sexual harassment policy in place 60 days after a final City Council vote on the ordinance, and they would have until July 1, 2018, to equip hotel employees with panic buttons.
Two violations within one year would be grounds to strip the hotel of its license to do business in Chicago.
During the hearing Monday before the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) explained why hotel workers desperately need protection in what is often a “toxic work environment” of intimidation and risk.
“Minus video surveillance, there is often no evidence of an altercation occurring in an isolated floor of a hotel. No witnesses. Just the word of the victim against the offender guest,” Burke said.
“Who does the hotel manager believe when a complaint is filed — a powerless employee or the executive paying hundreds of dollars in room charges with a corporate platinum American Express card? Without safeguards in place, it’s the employee who’s exposed and vulnerable to the abuser and, even at times, the hotel management.”
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 naked.
Those are not just statistics to Cecilia, a 28-year veteran mini-bar attendant at a Chicago hotel who works alone in guest rooms.
“One day I knocked on the door of a guest room. The man inside answered, `You can come in.’ The man was sitting at his desk in front of a computer. I heard the sounds of the computer. I looked over and realized he was watching porn and masturbating,” Cecilia, who refused to give her last name, said through an interpreter.
“I was so horrified and afraid. I ran from the room. The experience left me feeling dirty and without dignity. And since that experience, I felt scared about what could happen every time I open the door to a guest room. Having a panic button would make me feel safer. To know I could easily call for help if something happens would be such a relief.”
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.
Still, Kent said she’s ashamed to admit that she had no idea how widespread the problem was in the hospitality industry.
“What I know is that women don’t speak up. If you speak up, people doubt you…The response most of us want and we usually don’t get is, ‘I believe you and I know you’re telling the truth,'” Kent said.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) questioned whether the survey results account for what he called “Oh my God moments” when the housekeeper walks in and accidentally encounters a naked man coming out of the shower.
“That number is extremely high. Not to take anything away. I’m not trying to defend anybody. . . . But I’m sure part of that percentage was accidental,” Beale said.
Kent said some of the incidents could be accidental.
Marc Gordon, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, said he’s not opposed to the safety measures.
But he argued that the mandates are unnecessary and would “cost our hotels a good deal of money.”