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“Hands Off Pants On”: time to end gender-based abuse in the hotel industry

Too many women in Chicago’s hospitality industry are experiencing gender-based abuse at work – and women are speaking out to change that.

Photo by Noah Dobin-Bernstein, UNITE HERE Local 1.

Hotel housekeepers, bartenders, waitresses and cocktail servers – the majority of whom are women of color and immigrants – form the backbone of Chicago’s booming hospitality and tourism industry. Now these women are speaking out about their experiences of widespread and disturbing sexual harassment from guests. And they are calling for an end to the abuse. They are a part of the “Hands Off Pants On” campaign, a public awareness and legislative initiative to fight sexual harassment and sexual assault in the hospitality industry.

Led by the Chicago Federation of Labor and UNITE HERE Local 1, the “Hands Off Pants On” campaign was born out of survey conducted in 2016 by UNITE HERE Local 1 of 487 women working in the Chicagoland hospitality industry. The survey revealed:

  • 58% of hotel workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from guests, including incidences of sexual assault;
     
  • 65% of casino cocktail servers surveyed have had a guest grope, pinch or grab them or try to touch them in an unwelcome way;
     
  • 49% of housekeepers surveyed have had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked. 

The Chicago Federation of Labor brought together male union leaders to create a video featuring the unrehearsed, unscripted reactions of the men reading real stories of workplace sexual harassment. This powerful video launched a legislative initiative to help protect Chicago hotel workers from sexual harassment and assault. In April 2017, an ordinance was introduced in in Chicago City Council which would ensure that hotels provide a panic button to every hotel worker in Chicago that works alone in a guest room or restroom. Women working in Chicago’s hospitality industry are speaking out and calling for the passage of the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance. Esthela, who works as a housekeeper in a downtown hotel, is among these women:

"I came to Chicago from Durango, Mexico for a better life.  I am a proud mother of two and the grandmother of four wonderful grandkids. As a single mom, I took the job as a housekeeper to support my family. I have worked as a housekeeper at a downtown Chicago hotel for the last 8 years. With my union, UNITE HERE Local 1, we have won living wages and good health insurance at my hotel. I am proud of the hard work [that] my co-workers and I do every day. I put all of my heart into my job and I want to make sure the guests have a good stay at the hotel.

But some days it is hard to come home to my grandkids with my head held high. I have been sexually harassed by guests of the hotel. It makes me feel small and afraid. I’ve had instances where a guest answered the door completely naked. And more than once, a guest has masturbated in my presence. It is difficult to describe how horrible and degrading those experiences are. Every day when I knock on a guest room door, my legs start shaking. I worry: “What am I going to find? Am I safe in this room?” I decided speak up because I know this happens to other women I work with. I want a safer world for my grandkids and I know nothing can change if we remain silent.

Now, with the leadership of President Jorge Ramirez, the Chicago Federation of Labor is spearheading an effort to protect hotel workers against sexual harassment and assault. We are fighting to make sure that every Chicago housekeeper is equipped with a panic button. This means I will be able to call for help if am in a scary situation with a guest. I will be able to breathe a little easier at work. I believe because these efforts, more of us will come forward when we are sexually harassed by a guest.  I am proud that we are making hotels safer for my co-workers and the women that come after us."

Photo of Esthela by Noah Dobin-Bernstein, UNITE HERE Local 1.

Ensuring hotel workers who work alone are provided with panic buttons is a simple yet critical measure of protection against sexual harassment and assault. There is an inherent power imbalance between a man who can pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel room and the woman who cleans that room. This creates a dynamic ripe for abuse. The protections in the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance extend to all Chicago hotel workers, and will specifically address the risk faced by hotel housekeepers. To support Esthela and her fellow Chicago hotel workers, sign the petition calling for the swift passage of the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance here. For more information about the “Hands Off Pants On” campaign, visit www.handsoffpantson.org 

About the author

Sarah Lyons is a research analyst for UNITE HERE Local 1, a labour union that represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers in Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana. UNITE HERE Local 1 union members are the heart of Chicago’s hospitality industry, working in hotels, airports, restaurants, school cafeterias, stadiums, convention centers like McCormick Place and Navy Pier, and casinos in Northwest Indiana. UNITE HERE Local 1 is an affiliate of UNITE HERE, which represents 270,000 working people across Canada and the United States.


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