In a downtown hotel in Chicago’s Loop, a female housekeeper is interrupted by a crowd. Hotel security staff, her housekeeping manager and the general manager are standing at the door.
Much to their surprise, she was safe—but they had come upstairs because she had inadvertently, while tidying the room, pressed her new “panic button.” (She keeps the small, “Life Alert”-like device, connected to the hotel’s communication system, in her pants pocket.)
Last October, the Chicago City Council passed the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance with unanimous approval, mandating that hotels supply housekeepers with these portable devices. The new panic buttons are meant to protect anyone working alone in a room from sexual misconduct by hotel guests.
“You never know knocking on one of those doors what’s going to be on the other side of that door,” says Latonia, a housekeeper at a Chicago hotel who has been working in the industry for 17 years. “We witnessed it all. We saw it all.”
Unite Here Local 1, a Chicago labor union primarily representing women of color, proposed the legislation after releasing a report detailing that 49 percent of surveyed Chicagoland housekeepers “have had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them or answer the door naked,” and that 58 percent had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment—a stark number, especially in comparison to women working outside of the service industry.
“One of the issues that we had asked people about was what would make them feel safer at work, and 96 percent of the housekeepers we surveyed said a panic button,” says Sarah Lyons, research analyst for Unite Here Local 1. “We needed an industrywide solution.”
The fight to implement such precautionary measures has been a long journey for women like Latonia, who are completely alone for most of their working hours, but is gaining pace across the country. Chicago became only the second city in the United States to pass a panic button ordinance in 2017, one year after Seattle did the same. But in 2018, hotel employees in the California cities of Oakland and Long Beach followed suit, and fought to pass “Measure Z” and “Measure WW”—which would not only provide panic buttons to hotel housekeepers but also create new minimum wage standards, enforce safer workloads and prevent forced overtime.
Oakland voters passed the measure after a local survey showed that guests had exposed themselves to over half of hotel workers there, and that 25 percent had been threatened by a male guest. Irma, a local housekeeper who was a leading force in the movement, says she supported the measure to prevent sexual harassment, and to fight against the “complete lack of respect” for her work. Though her hotel has yet to incorporate the buttons, she is expecting the implementation by early July 2019.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement—and the TIME declaration that “Silence Breakers” including hotel workers were the Persons of the Year—large corporate chains such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts have also announced their intentions to roll panic buttons out nationwide by 2020, accompanied by mandatory new policies, education and training around sexual harassment.
Their intentions, however, don’t signal quite the sea change hotel workers are waiting for. Unite Here Local 8 in Seattle faced down a strategic campaign by the hotel industry to discourage the passage of their ballot initiative—and are currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed by industry actors, including the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which announced a partnership in September with the corporations now declaring widespread support for the devices. Some hotels also resisted the ordinance’s goals by implementing low-grade buttons or not installing them at all.
“Certainly the industry was not always a willing collaborator in these efforts,” Abby Lawlor, the union’s strategic researcher, told Ms., “and I think in a lot of ways still aren’t.” Unite Here Local 8 continues to fight not only for the buttons but also anti-harassment measures beyond the buttons, including the right to be assigned to another hotel location and legal repercussions for perpetrators. “Panic buttons are a start,” Lawlor noted, “but they are in no way near the full extent of what folks need.”
In addition to occasional false alarms, implementation of the buttons requires high costs of installment and trainings for workers. Some large hotel chains expressed discontent over Chicago’s short timeframe for implementation and disagreed with stipulations that required anyone working alone in a room with a guest to carry a button. “I know that a lot of companies are not going to like it,” Irma told Ms., “because it’s not going to just cost time, but it’s also going to cost them money.”
Yet other hotels have supported these measures wholeheartedly. “You don’t ever put a price on your employees’ safety and comfort,” Mitch Langeler, vice president of talent and culture at SMASHotels in Chicago, told Ms. “You want people to come to work and not have to worry that they’re going to get help if they need it.”
According to Latonia, all of Chicago’s 26 unionized downtown hotels have also recognized the importance of their workers’ safety and implemented the buttons in time, primarily due to the activist efforts of their unionized workers. When asked about her own hotel’s management, she submitted an ideal report: “We haven’t had any backlash.” Even though nobody has needed to use the buttons thus far at her hotel, the devices seem to be working properly in all test runs and false alarms.
Workers at non-union hotels, however, faced more pushback. “There were some challenges,” Karla Altmayer, the co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, which trains Chicago service workers on workplace gender-based violence, told Ms., “with employers saying, ‘I’m going to charge you for the button if you break it,’ or, ‘only women wear the button, men don’t have to’ or, ‘you’ll be fired if you use it.’ That’s where I think you really get to see the power of the collective. We’re not going to tolerate that.”
For Latonia, this “power of the collective,” especially in the form of a local union, is the source of much of her recent pride as an organizer and shop steward for Local 1. “That’s where it all started,” she says, discussing the long fight to pass “Hands Off Pants On”—which began as part of a conversation proposed by Unite Here at her hotel’s morning housekeeper meeting. “It’s been a long journey, and it was worth it,” she told Ms. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
But her fight is also far from over. Local 1 led citywide strikes in September, after the measure passed, that culminated in 25 out of 26 striking hotels reaching a deal with their workers for year-round health insurance and improved work conditions—the next logical step for women like Latonia intent on building equitable workplaces. Altmayer also told Ms. that she hopes the next fight for Chicago will be expanding these protections and improved work contracts to smaller businesses, where she says the “most rampant” sexual violence occurs.
Although recent successes for workers like Irma and Latonia are being credited to the #MeToo movement, many of the women fighting for such reforms were doing so long before news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct made headlines—and their work has also been devoted to centering the experiences of low-income women and women of color.
If time’s (finally) up on hotel guest sex harassment, it’s because of the years of leadership of working-class women of color, and Altmayer hopes their leadership will shape the movement that has now amplified their voices. “I do think that there’s still an opportunity for centering this work in the voices of workers most impacted,” she told Ms., “who are doing really creative initiatives to address gender-based violence in their communities.”