Hotel workers demand cities protect them from sexual harassment
Unite Here

CHICAGO (PAI) — Union hotel workers in at least four big U.S. cities – New York, Chicago, Seattle and D.C. – are campaigning for new laws to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment by guests. The problem has gotten so big, says the Unite Here union, that cities can no longer afford to ignore it.

The latest to join the parade is D.C., where the prestigious Mayflower Hotel, after work with Unite Here Local 25, will distribute “panic buttons” to all of its female hotel maids by June 1. The maids can press the button if they’re sexually harassed on the job, summoning security.

Chicago may be next on the list: Alderwoman Michelle Harris, D-8th Ward, proposed an ordinance to mandate that hotels in one of the U.S.’ biggest convention cities distribute those same devices. Harris’ far South Side ward includes minority-group women who commute to downtown hotels to work as maids and housekeepers.

“We think it’s very important to protect our workers, particularly women who are isolated” while cleaning rooms, Sarah Lyons of Unite Here Local 1 in Chicago told WLS TV.

The story of sexual harassment of female hotel workers has occasionally erupted into headlines when a prominent “guest” faces charges. The most-notable case occurred in Manhattan six years ago when a hotel maid there said she was sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading contender for the French presidency.

The charges were later dropped, but New York hotels instituted the panic buttons for their maids. And Strauss-Kahn’s career crashed. But he wasn’t an isolated case.

A Local 1 survey last July, of nearly 500 women who work in Chicago’s hotels and casinos, showed 58 percent of hotel maids and 77 percent of female casino workers were sexually harassed on the job. It was the first such survey of its kind in the U.S. Seattle had a later, smaller survey with similar results.

“A housekeeper in an upscale hotel in downtown Chicago pushes her heavy cart down the hall towards her first room of the day. She is the only housekeeper in that wing of the hotel floor,” the union’s report says.

“She stops the cart near the room door and knocks. ‘Housekeeping!’ she says in a loud, clear voice. No answer. She knocks again. She is about to knock a third time when the door opens. The man is wearing a robe, but the robe is open. He is completely naked underneath. This scenario is disturbingly common.”

Cecilia Leiva, a 28-year Chicago hotel worker, said a lot of the maids are afraid to file complaints. Guests have invited her into their rooms while they were naked or masturbating, she added. “I just turn around and walk away,” Leiva said.

But other workers cry, get frustrated or are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they complain, she added.

John Boardman, president of Unite Here Local 25 in Washington, D.C., says the local affiliate of the American Hotel and Lodging Association – the lobby for the nation’s big hotels – agreed five years ago to giving the workers the panic buttons. But it took until now to develop the technology, he told the Washington Post. In the meantime, recently a right wing Republican business owner harassed a maid at the Mayflower during GOP President Donald Trump’s inauguration weekend. The man just pled guilty to a sexual harassment misdemeanor and was sent to jail for 10 days.

The story is different in Seattle. The mayor, the city council and the public all got behind an ordinance, Initiative 124, for the panic buttons, pushed by Unite Here Local 8 and a worker coalition. It passed 77 percent-23 percent among almost 226,000 voters last November.

But the AHLA opposed the Seattle ordinance – and has gone to court to stop it – because it also imposes many other pro-worker requirements on hotels. I-124 requires hotels to keep lists of the names of accused guests. That would infringe on privacy, the lobby claims.

I-124 also requires the hotels to provide quality affordable health insurance, or raise the low-paid workers’ wages to cover the costs, and limits worker contributions for the health insurance to no more than 6 percent of annual income.

And Seattle’s measure also limits how many rooms or how much space a maid or housekeeper can clean per 8-hour shift, to cut down on repetitive-motion (ergonomic) injuries. And it gives current hotel workers preference for employment when a hotel is sold.

“Local 8 is proud to be sponsoring City of Seattle Initiative 124 and is joining with a broad coalition of supporters to urge voters to vote Yes! this November,” the union said before the balloting. “Hotel workers displayed incredible courage in participating in this campaign: Sharing their stories, showing their faces, and demonstrating these are real issues affecting women in Seattle.

“While our opposition, led by a national corporate lobbying group, hides behind stock photos, real hotel workers are putting everything they have behind this campaign. It’s up to us to make sure their faces are seen and their stories are heard.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

Mariya Strauss
Mariya Strauss

Mariya Strauss is a writer and labor and community activist who lives with her family in Baltimore, Maryland.