From Panic to Prevention: What It Will Take to End Sexual Harassment for Hotel Workers

A majority of hotel workers in Chicago endure sexual harassment on the job—and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, they just won a major victory in their ongoing fight for better working conditions. A city ordinance now in effect requires hotels to install panic buttons employees can use to alert management when guests are sexually harassing them.

At least 58 percent of women working in Chicago hotels reported being sexually harassed by a guest in a first-of-its-kind survey conducted in 2016 by UNITE HERE Local 1, a union representing hotel, food service and gaming workers in the Midwest. The women surveyed described guests attempting to touch or kiss them, exposing themselves, cornering them and pressuring them for dates.

It’s no surprise that the hospitality industry is plagued with sexual harassment: Women of color and low-wage female workers generally have less power in society, and they make up a large share of its workers. These women are vulnerable, and guests leverage power dynamics to take advantage of that vulnerability.

The push for panic buttons is a progressive step toward protecting women working in the Windy City’s hospitality industry. Similar efforts have been made in other major cities, such as Seattle and Las Vegas. But when it comes to deterring harassment in the first place, the devices alone will not do the trick.

Sexual harassment is not about sex. It’s about power and abuse of it. That’s why it’s on the powers-that-be in hospitality to advance the fight to end sexual harassment for hospitality workers—and put their workers before their bottom line.

“Studies like the one in Chicago,” UNITE HERE VP Maria Elana Durazo told Ms., “have confirmed what housekeepers have known for years. They work alone in areas that have no access to surveillance cameras or security guards. When incidents do occur, housekeepers are often unwilling to report them out of fear that they won’t be believed or that the hotel managers will avoid confronting the offending guest.”

Hotel management should clearly communicate to guests that harassing hotel employees will not be tolerated, and to define clear consequences for misconduct, such as immediately terminating their stay and banning them from future visits.

More than 56 percent of the workers surveyed by UNITE HERE said they didn’t feel safe returning to work after being sexually harassed—yet only 33 percent reported the incident at that time to their managers. The low reporting rate reflects a problem with the system that goes beyond the behavior of hotel guests.

Women workers should feel comfortable reporting misconduct. Sexual harassment thrives in a culture of silence. Installing panic buttons may encourage more women to come forward, but management must communicate to those women that it will quickly respond and support them, regardless of the offending guest.

At least one Chicago hotel is making an effort to communicate support for its employees: Gina Giovanni, a 34-year-old craft-cocktail bartender who recently underwent the new-hire training on panic buttons at The Conrad Hotel, told Ms. that “they’re taking it very seriously.”

Giovanni, who has worked in hospitality since the age of 16, has amassed a wealth of stories about harassment, many first-hand.

“People are consistently inappropriate toward women in the service industry,” she said. “They’re pushy, make lewd comments, stare at parts of your body that they ought not to be staring at.” At times during her career, the 5’2” brunette said she felt the need to actually arm herself—as she could not guarantee how patrons, whether intoxicated or sober, would respond to her rejection of their advances.

“The panic buttons are really important for housekeepers, though, because they’re the ones who are most often alone with guests in a room,” she said. “Not everybody likes to be touched.”


Adrienne Lawrence is an attorney and on-air legal analyst who focuses on gender equality issues. Adrienne also is the author of Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment, a first-of-its-kind sexual harassment survival guide, set to be published on May 12, 2020 by Penguin’s TarcherPerigee.