Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Seattle fights hotel worker harassment with new law

Union members in Seattle are at the forefront of the fight for healthier and safer workplaces for women hotel workers.

19 September 2017

Photo by Alex Garland.

In the spring of 2016, hotel workers and members of UNITE HERE Local 8 in Seattle embarked on a campaign to tackle the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault and other health and safety issues experienced by hotel employees, in particular women working as hotel housekeepers.

While UNITE HERE locals across the country had raised the issue of sexual assault protections in contract negotiations with hotel employers – notably in the wake of the accusations of attempted rape against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 – the campaign in Seattle was the first effort by a local to pass broader legislation creating protections for union and non-union workers alike.

The initiative was not only an economic justice effort, but a gender, racial, and immigrant justice effort as well.

The legislation took the form of a citywide citizens’ ballot initiative, which contained requirements that hotels provide panic buttons to workers, record workers’ reports of harassment and assault by hotel guests, and reassign workers away from problem guests or ban guests when appropriate. Known locally as Initiative 124, the legislation also contained a workload limit for hotel housekeepers, measures to improve hotel employee access to affordable family healthcare, and job security protections. 

Taken together, these provisions created improved health and safety standards for hotel workers that helped ensure that workers weren’t sacrificing their physical wellbeing in order to provide for their families. As the housekeeping workforce in Seattle is almost entirely female and majority immigrant women and women of color, the initiative was not only an economic justice effort, but a gender, racial, and immigrant justice effort as well.

After the campaign successfully collected over 38,000 signatures, Initiative 124 qualified to appear on the November 2016 ballot in Seattle, but met well-funded opposition from the American Hotel & Lodging Association and state and local industry organisations. In the face of industry claims that hotels were already adequately addressing issues of harassment and assault, workers spoke out and shared their stories to convince Seattle voters of the need for additional city-mandated protections.

Hotel workers shared their experiences with local media outlets and through testimony at the Seattle City Council and a union-convened Hotel Worker Safety Summit.  Below are three workers’ stories collected during the campaign: 

A long-time room service server, Ida Calderon has experienced numerous incidents of sexual harassment from guests over the course of her hotel industry career. One in particular stood out: a guest who ordered 14 shots of whiskey and requested over the phone that Ida deliver the order in a French maid outfit. In another incident, a guest ordered food and then answered the door without any pants on. 

A housekeeper who shared her story anonymously recounted how she was cleaning what she thought was an unoccupied room, only to have two men enter the room while her back was turned. They stood between her and the door and propositioned her for sex. She had to push past them in order to exit the room. In another incident, the housekeeper arrived to clean an empty room and found a pornographic video playing on the television. Not wanting to view the content while she cleaned, she turned the video off. Later, the room’s occupant complained to management that his video had been turned off and the housekeeper was disciplined.

A room service server at two downtown Seattle hotels, Ermalyn Magtuba described facing both sexualised and racial harassment from hotel guests. She says she learned to laugh about how guests behave because it felt like all she could do to cope with the job. But she also made sure to have her corkscrew within easy reach when she delivered orders to rooms in case she needed to defend herself. A relative working in the hotel front office was cornered by a guest late at night as she worked alone. Another coworker who was sexually assaulted in a guest room chose to quit rather than return to work at the hotel.

In addition to sharing individual stories with politicians, community supporters, and voters, Seattle union members also worked to document just how widespread their experiences were. Workers surveyed each other in hotel break rooms and through house visits to gather quantitative data on the frequency with which they were subjected to various forms of sexual harassment and assault on the job and the results were striking. Of the 99 housekeepers surveyed: 

• 53% had experienced some form of harassment or assault;

• 175 incidents of being flashed or exposed to guest nudity were reported;

• 17 incidents where they were groped or otherwise physically assaulted were counted; 

• 47% had heard accounts of harassment or assault from friends and coworkers. 

These numbers, along with personal appeals from hotel workers, secured the Initiative 124 campaign the endorsement of over 50 community-based organisations – including labour unions, women’s and immigrants’ rights advocates, LGBTQ and racial justice groups, and faith-based organisations, as well as the Seattle City Council and Seattle’s mayor. 

On 8 November 2016, Initiative 124 passed with 77% of the vote and was signed into law later that month. By the end of 2016, hotels across the city had begun distributing panic buttons to employees and implementing new standard operating procedures for responding to reports of sexual harassment and assault.  

Protections from sexual harassment and assault represent an important new frontier for workplace health and safety standards.

Unfortunately, the fight to secure health and safety protections for Seattle hotel workers isn’t over. In December 2016, the hotel industry filed suit against the initiative, arguing that protecting housekeepers from sexual harassment and assault at work would impinge upon the rights of hotel guests. In June of 2017, the Initiative was upheld in King County Superior Court, but has been further appealed to the State Supreme Court. The law remains in effect; however, enforcement actions are unlikely until the appeal is resolved and the City of Seattle establishes rules for implementation. 

In the meantime, hotel workers continue to organise and educate one another about their new rights under Seattle law and pressure employers to comply with the initiative. Earlier this summer, a group of over 30 housekeepers at one downtown hotel circulated a petition to demand that the hotel follow the law and delivered it en masse to hotel management.

Hotel workers in other cities are also following suit. In Chicago, efforts are underway to secure panic buttons for hotel housekeepers. And in Long Beach, housekeepers are advocating for the passage of Claudia’s Law to provide panic buttons and reduce housekeeping workloads.

Protections from sexual harassment and assault represent an important new frontier for workplace health and safety standards – one that centres the experiences of low-wage, immigrant women workers. Along with farmworkers and janitorial workers, hotel workers are leading the fight for safer, more secure workplaces. 

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