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Powerful alderman accused of weakening hotel worker protections she championed

8th Ward alderman candidate Michelle Harris 2019 mayoral election

8th Ward aldermanic candidate and incumbent Michelle Harris at a City Council meeting. | File photo

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

Sarah Lyons, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 1, said the union was “shocked” when it got wind late last week that Rules Committee Chairman Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) had quietly introduced the amendment at the Jan. 17 Council meeting.

“It redefines ’employees’ in the ‘Hands Off, Pants On’ ordinance to only include workers who clean guest rooms and restrooms,” Lyons told aldermen during a hearing Tuesday that focused on sexual harassment at Ford Motor Company’s two Chicago plants.

“The anti-retaliation provisions…would therefore not apply to any employee who is not essentially a housekeeper or assigned to clean guest rooms and restrooms. That’s why it’s been a shock for the women and for us to see that.”

Lyons said hotel workers who “fought long and hard” for the ordinance were not consulted before Harris proposed watering it down.

A 17-year-veteran Chicago hotel bartender who identified herself only by her first name — Roshonda — unleashed her anger on Harris.

“Shock, outrage and heartbreak are only beginnings of how I feel to be stripped of the anti-retaliation safeguards we fought so hard for,” Roshonda said.

Roshonda told the story of what happened when she started working as a cocktail server and served drinks to four men dressed in business suits.

One of the men slapped her hard on the rear end and said, “Thank you” with a smirk.

“I felt so violated. I was shocked he could get away with that. I told him don’t ever do that again, but I was afraid to return to the table,” she said.

“I was new to the job and needed it….The culture was, ‘get tough and deal with it.’ I didn’t want them to get rid of me. It made me feel small and alone….Many women working in the industry believe it’s just part of the job. The proposed loophole only promotes this harmful mentality…This loophole helps perpetuate the culture of silence and fear.”

Harris said that’s why she asked that the amendment be held in the Committee on Workforce Development.

“It’s just sitting until we have a chance to talk to you about it,” Harris told Lyons.

Harris did not explain why she introduced the ordinance or who asked for the change. She would only say, “It had been my intent to pull the parties together at the appropriate time to have a meeting before anything went anyplace.”

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) rose to Harris’ defense.

“Ald. Harris was the champion of this whole effort to grant, for the first time anywhere in the United States, this kind of protection,” Burke said.

“If there’s a misunderstanding, I know that [it will be corrected] because there is nobody who is a bigger champion of this cause than Ald. Harris.”

Austin said complaints about the proposed loophole still stuck in committee are “unfair to Ald. Harris….She is the champion of speaking for you all and with you all.”

In mid-November, City Clerk Anna Valencia cut a cake — right through a photo of disgraced Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s face — to celebrate passage of the groundbreaking ordinance aimed at shielding Chicago hotel workers from sexual harassment.

Chicago hotels had until December to put written sexual harassment policies in place. A requirement to provide portable panic buttons to employees working alone doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2018.

Harris championed the ordinance with an assist from Valencia, emboldened by a survey that showed a majority of Chicago-area hotel workers have been sexually harassed by guests.