UNITE HERE Takes On Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Hospitality Industry

When UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago heard the story of a young server being sexually harassed by a male guest while working at a local casino, the labor union took action. Local 1 conducted a survey of nearly 500 women working as housekeepers, bartenders and servers within the state’s hospitality industry—then compiled and analyzed their findings and laid out policy recommendations in a new report entitled “Hands Off Pants On.”

Survey results within the report revealed that women working in the city’s hotels, casinos and conference centers frequently encounter various forms of sexual harassment, primarily from male guests.

The women provided personal accounts of guests exhibiting inappropriate behaviors constituting sexual harassment. Fifty-eight percent of the hotel employees surveyed reported encountering at least one instance of sexual harassment from a guest. Employees described incidents where guests were naked when answering the door or would expose themselves. In fact, more than 49 percent of the hotel workers surveyed interacted with guests who exhibited these behaviors.

Other guests have cornered employees, made unwanted sexual advances, inappropriately grabbed the women, pressured them for dates or sexual favors, or made sexually explicit comments. Women working in casinos possess a high likelihood of encountering these disturbing behaviors. Sixty-five percent of cocktail servers reported instances where a guest grabbed, patted, kissed, groped or attempted to touch them in an unwelcome manner. Of the women working as food and beverage servers in casinos, 78 percent experienced scenarios where a guest made an unwanted sexual comment about them or directed the comment to them.

The hospitality industry reportedly possesses one of the highest rates of workplace sexual harassment. This fact is concerning, given both the demographics of the vast majority of the industry’s employees and the demands of the job. Last year, more than seven million women in the United States worked in the hospitality industry. The majority of hospitality workers are women, and a significant number are women of color. Whether they’re cleaning rooms or serving drinks, the duties of their jobs often place these women into scenarios where they’re alone with guests.

Existing power dynamics also contribute to the pervasive culture of sexual harassment within the industry. A large number of the male guests visiting Chicago’s metropolitan hotels and casinos possess a vastly higher socioeconomic status and far more social clout than employees working at low-income positions.

Regularly experiencing sexual harassment can greatly diminish the sense of security and safety women feel in their workplace. More than half of the hotel employees surveyed reported not feeling safe returning to work after encountering misconduct from a guest. Due to the frequency of these incidents, many female employees assume this type of harassment is commonplace and neglect to report these incidents, believing nothing can be done to address the problem. Only 33 percent of the respondents in the UNITE HERE Local 1 survey reported incidents of harassment to their supervisors.

UNITE HERE Local 1 has proposed policies to improve employee safety, such as mandating that employers must ban guests who sexually harass employees and to supply employees with panic buttons they can use to call for assistance if needed. Hotels in New York City began providing panic buttons to employees in 2012 when the measure was included in the terms of in a labor contract. Improving the current availability of sexual harassment training and education is another measure employers should consider, given that only 19 percent of the hospitality workers were provided with information from their employer on how to handle sexual harassment from guests.

The magnitude of this problem is evident—it’s up to lawmakers and employers to work together now to ensure sexual harassment is no longer part of the job for the millions of women working in hospitality.




Melissa Scholke is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied English Literature and Communications Studies. When she’s not writing and discussing important feminist issues, she spends time reading and indulging her indie music obsession.