Should hotels provide panic buttons to protect their housekeepers from sexual assault and harassment on the job? That’s the question voters in two southern California communities could be asked in November.
The electronic devices silently summon hotel security or police if a worker is cornered by a guest, a co-worker or supervisor, and they can be stowed in a pocket or on a key chain.
Juana Melara, 53, would have hit the panic button the day a man sneaked up on her with his erect penis exposed as she scrubbed a bathtub in a suburban Los Angeles hotel more than five years ago. She managed to get the man to leave the room, then locked herself in and called for help. She waited 20 minutes while the man menaced at least two of her co-workers.
“We’re part of the package when they pay for a luxury hotel,” Melara said of the mindset of some guests she’s encountered in 23 years of cleaning rooms, adding that room cleaners routinely contended with leering looks and propositions from guests.
“The only way this can change is having these panic buttons,” Melara said. She was featured as one of the “silence breakers” who were collectively named Time Magazine’s 2017 person of the year. She joined an effort by the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here Local 11, to collect thousands of signatures to qualify the panic button initiative for the ballot in Long Beach and in the exclusive seaside town of Rancho Palos Verdes, where two resorts, including the Trump National Golf Club, employ several hundred workers and would also be subject to the law.
In addition to preventing sexual harassment, the initiatives in both cities are aimed at reducing room cleaner workloads and limiting mandatory overtime, and they apply to larger hotels and resorts. Employers would be required to pay double to housekeepers who are assigned to clean more than 4,000 sq ft of floor space per shift. The Rancho Palos Verdes law also requires a $15 per hour minimum wage for resort workers. Union hotels would be exempt from all but the panic button provisions; Unite Here officials argue the exemption is reasonable because in union establishments, workers negotiate workloads and overtime with their employers.
Hotel industry officials oppose the ballot measures, arguing that they are a stealth attempt to incentivize unionization.
Jeremy Harris, a Long Beach Chamber of Commerce vice-president and a spokesman for the city’s hospitality association, said in a statement that the initiative’s real goal was “about forcing no-union hotels in Long Beach to enter into a collective bargaining agreement by creating overly burdensome and costly business regulations. He contended that hotels in his town were already safe.
Unite Here officials say they don’t have data to show how often panic buttons have been deployed or how effective they are in the cities where workers have them. But in Seattle, a Hilton hotel housekeeper, Sonia Guevara, 31, says she feels more secure when she enters a room alone with a panic button in hand. “You only have to push a button and someone will come,” she said. Seattle voters approved the measure in 2016, but some hotels, like Guevara’s, have been slow to issue them. She has had hers just one week.
The idea of equipping workers with noiseless alarms first took hold when the former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged with the rape of a hotel housekeeper in New York. The criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn were later dropped. He settled a civil suit with the worker, and in 2013, Unite Here won panic button provisions in contracts covering New York hotel workers.
The allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing #MeToo movement spurred more action, including Chicago’s 2017 Hands Off Pants On law, which also requires panic buttons for hotel workers. Meanwhile, the California state legislature is considering an anti-sexual harassment bill, AB 1761, that would also require that hotels provide their workers with panic buttons. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 6 August in the senate appropriations committee.
Unite Here officials say new union contracts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas also require employers to provide room cleaners with panic buttons.
On 7 August, the Long Beach city council, which voted 5-4 against a similar measure last year, will decide whether to adopt the union’s panic button initiative without a popular vote. Three days later, union officials will be in Los Angeles superior court to fend off an effort by the city of Rancho Palos Verdes to postpone the vote on the measure until 2019.