Hotels rally behind promise to create safer workspaces

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Photo Credit: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Following the launch of the American Hotel & Lodging Association's (AHLA) 5-Star Promise initiative, hospitality workers across the country are about to benefit from a large-scale deployment of "employee safety devices," popularly known as panic buttons. 

The AH&LA unveiled the 5-Star Promise at a media event in Washington earlier this month in partnership with a consortium of leading hotel brands. Focused on preventing sexual harassment and assault, the workplace safety platform is promoting "broad implementation" of panic buttons, among other measures, by 2020. 

Marriott International, InterContinental Hotels Group, Hilton, AccorHotels and Hyatt are among the many major hospitality players that have committed to the 5-Star Promise and plan to build on their existing protocols before the 2020 target.

Marriott announced that panic buttons would be made a brand standard across managed and franchised hotels throughout the U.S. and Canada, while both IHG and Hilton have pledged to have devices available at all their managed U.S. properties. 

Concurrently, AccorHotels detailed plans to provide them to all employees who enter guestrooms and restrooms unaccompanied. The devices can vary in functionality, ranging from loud noise-emitting features to emergency GPS tracking. 

Hyatt, meanwhile, began introducing panic buttons for employees at all managed, full-service properties within the Americas region last fall. The company, which has largely opted for buttons that emit a "shrieking" noise and are similar in appearance to a key fob, said that the devices are now available for more than 4,500 room attendants across 120 properties. Hyatt, too, plans to eventually make the buttons a brand standard.

The AH&LA's 5-Star Promise comes as hotel employee panic buttons have become commonplace -- in some cases, even legally mandated -- in a growing number of U.S. cities. In New York and Las Vegas, for example, hotel unions have made the devices a key issue in contract negotiations, resulting in the widespread implementation of panic buttons in both markets.

"We started a campaign for negotiating contracts for workers earlier this year, and now we have around 48,000 workers with contracts that feature sexual harassment safety language, which includes WiFi-enabled safety buttons," said Bethany Khan, director of communications and digital strategy for Las Vegas' Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents the city's hotel and casino workers. 

"We've heard many stories from hotel workers, and they've expressed it's important for the buttons to be wearable and have WiFi," Khan said. "A static button in the room is not an option; it's in one place, and you have to get to it, which can be challenging in emergency situations."

Additionally, Las Vegas panic buttons cannot be used to spy on workers or collect data, Khan said, and their rollout has also forced properties to improve their WiFi connectivity and ensure their properties don't have "dead zones." The Las Vegas union contracts went into effect on June 1.

In 2016, Seattle became the first U.S. city to pass a panic button ordinance. Known as the Hotel Employees Health and Safety Initiative, the union-backed measure requires Seattle hotels to offer the devices to employees.

Abby Lawlor, a researcher for Seattle-based hospitality union Unite Here Local 8, said that the ordinance "came about because we really needed to address some of the stark differences in safety and health that we were seeing between union and nonunion hotels in the city."

According to a 2016 Unite Here Local 8 survey of nearly 100 Seattle hotel housekeepers, roughly 53% reported a total of 262 incidents of sexual harassment by guests.

Lawlor said that the Hotel Employees Health and Safety Initiative, which also includes provisions addressing unsafe workloads, affordable healthcare and job security, faced significant industry pushback following its passage. 

The AH&LA, Seattle Hotel Association and Washington Hospitality Association filed a lawsuit against the city in December 2016, alleging that the ordinance's protections were "either duplicative of or in conflict with existing federal and state law." 

While that claim was eventually thrown out by a King County Superior Court judge in 2017, Lawlor said the AHLA is "still pursuing litigation in Seattle to try and overturn the law."  

The AH&LA is primarily opposed to provisions in the Seattle ordinance that say hotels must "decline service to a guest who is accused of assault, sexual assault or sexual harassment for three years (if the accusation is supported by evidence or sworn statement)" and "maintain a list of reported guests for five years."

"While the Seattle initiative was passed under the guise of employee safety, it included several regulations that had nothing to do with safety," the AHLA said in an email. "The law violates the due process rights of our guests and places hotel employees in the role of law enforcement without proper training."

Other cities have also introduced ordinances focused on panic button implementation, with Chicago and Miami Beach recently passing their own laws. A similar ordinance is on the ballot on Nov. 6 in Long Beach, Calif. 

The panic buttons have helped improve safety for people like Seattle's Nuris Deras, a hospitality worker and victim of workplace sexual harassment. 

"In my case, there was an incident where I knocked on the door, the guest didn't answer, and when I got in the room, he was completely naked. We put ourselves at risk every time we knock on a door and no one answers," said Deras, who has worked as a hotel housekeeper for two and a half years. "The devices have been a really good thing for us and have made us feel safer at work. I really hope that housekeepers everywhere can have the same protection under this law that we have here in Seattle."

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