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Implementation of panic buttons, or employee safety devices, for hotel employees is a good start, but it should just be the beginning of the much broader measures the entire global hospitality industry should take to ensure the safety of every single person who walks through its doors.

An unprecedented gathering of major U.S. hotel leaders on Thursday announced a new industry-wide pledge to enforce stronger safety and security measures for their hotel employees.

Called the 5-Star Promise, five hotel brands have promised to provide their U.S.-based hotel employees with safety devices, also commonly referred to as panic buttons, as well as to enhance their respective policies, trainings, and resources for hotel safety, especially as they relate to sexual harassment and assault.

The panic buttons can range from those worn as necklaces to those on a key fob.

The announcement was made at a press conference by the chief executive officers from Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott, and Wyndham as well as by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) in Washington, D.C.

Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta told Skift that “safety and security has never been an area that we compromise on,” but he noted that in the last year especially there has been increased awareness of “sexual harassment claims across a broad range of industries and, frankly, geographies.”

“I think we all sat and realized, over the last year and a half, this is an area — in terms of taking care of our team members — that we [the hotel brands] really shouldn’t be competing on, and that we should have a unified and aligned, and as consistent an approach that we could,” Nassetta said.

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While a handful of cities in the U.S. currently have ordinances that require panic buttons for hotel workers — New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Seattle, among them — this new pledge ensures that the devices are to be implemented nationwide by 2020. Joining the five brands with various levels of commitment to safety device implementation were AccorHotels, Best Western, Loews Hotels, Las Vegas Sands, Outrigger, Radisson, and Red Lion Hotels Corporation.

“This is such a first for our industry, to really proactively address an issue that matters deeply to our associates and to our employees,” said Geoff Ballotti, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts CEO. “It’s incredible. I’ve never seen such engagement across competing brands as I have on this issue in my 30 years in the hospitality industry. I’ve never seen such a commitment to partnerships with such best-in-class organizations like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, or the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, or Ending Childhood Prostitution and Trafficking.”

The hospitality industry, in particular, is not unaccustomed to issues relating to sexual harassment and assault of hotel employees, especially for housekeepers who often work alone in guest rooms. Response from the broader hotel industry, however, has not always been as proactive or receptive as it is today, for a number of reasons and challenges.

An All-Too-Common Occurrence

A June 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report noted hotel housekeepers as being particularly vulnerable to cases of harassment because of the nature of their “isolated workspaces.”

In an online survey of hospitality industry workers conducted earlier this year by U.K.-based trade union, Unite the Union, 89 percent of respondents said they had experienced one or more incidences of sexual harassment at work.

Juana Melara, a Long Beach, California-based hotel housekeeper who has worked in the hotel industry since 1995 said she and her fellow housekeepers have experienced multiple incidences of sexual harassment and assault over the years and that in each instance, “nothing was done.”

Once, a male exposed himself to Melara when she was working at the Sheraton Cerritos Hotel, and although she reported him to management immediately, the police response was so delayed that the same man managed to also expose himself to two of her other co-workers.

Another time, at another hotel, a guest attempted to rape one of Melara’s colleagues when she was working alone in a stairwell at night.

One of the most common instances of sexual harassment that Melara and her fellow housekeepers often deal with, she says, are requests for massages.

“The way they see you, the way they check you out from head to toe, that tone of voice they use discloses that they want more than just a massage,” Melara said. “If I knew how to give a massage, I wouldn’t be working at a hotel as a room attendant. That one is very, very common in housekeeping. They feel like they have a right to do that, to say that. They feel like they can use anything that is in the room when they check in, and they think the room attendant comes along with the package, and they can disrespect us in all manners they can think of.”

Stories like Melara’s are not uncommon.

In New York in 2012, hotel operators agreed to give hotel employees their own personal panic buttons following the highly publicized 2011 arrest of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault against a Sofitel New York housekeeper. While the criminal case against Strauss-Kahn was dismissed, he eventually settled a civil suit with the housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, in 2012, for an undisclosed sum.

The Strauss-Kahn incident prompted Vanessa Ogle, CEO of Enseo, a hospitality technology platform company, to develop her own patented employee safety device called MadeSafe when a New York-based hotel client requested a solution.

Ogle said that in the first three years of selling the product, “no one [in the hotel community] felt a sense of urgency” to invest in these types of tech solutions.

“It only happened when there were municipal mandates or a housekeeping union mandate,” Ogle said. “Only when they had to do it did they invest the money.”

This year, however, has been very different. “Just this year, in 2018, we have seen a radical change. In 2018, we have equaled the deployments of all the previous years combined for hotels and education communities.”

To date, she noted that more than 5,000 housekeepers have been given MadeSafe devices, and she sees that number continuing to grow now that organizations like AHLA and the major hotel brands are becoming more invested” and “looking for products that really work.”

But why has it taken until 2018 for the U.S. hotel industry to finally unite and address this shared concern?

“The landscape has really changed in the past six months,” said Rachel Gumpert, national press secretary for labor union Unite Here, which represents 270,000 workers in hotels, gaming, food service, and other industries across the U.S. and Canada “We started fighting for panic buttons in hotels six years ago, and we have faced a gauntlet of employer opposition. But with the Me Too movement, there’s a really different landscape now, one where employers know they can no longer publicly oppose us on panic buttons.”

In some cases, that opposition came from AHLA itself. AHLA, along with the Seattle Hotel Association and the Washington Hospitality Association, sued the city of Seattle over its Initiative 124 ordinance in December 2016. That ordinance, which remains intact, not only requires union- and non-union hotels to implement safety devices for hotel staff but also requires hotels to keep track of guests who are accused of assault against workers and in certain cases, those guests would also be banned from returning to that hotel.

AHLA has maintained that in Seattle, the organization was not opposed to the implementation of panic buttons, but that it sued the city out of concerns over the violation of due process rights for guests.

Notes obtained from AHLA’s November 2016 board meeting, however, described panic buttons as a “solution in search of a problem” and “an effective fig leaf for new workforce rules, making the initiative appear to be about protecting women, rather than the merits of the other mandates.”

Access to safety devices or panic buttons makes hotel employees feel safer. Prior to the passage of Seattle’s panic button ordinance, 95 out of 100 downtown Seattle hotel housekeepers told Unite Here that having access to those devices would make them generally feel safer at work.

But some hotel owners have previously balked at the additional costs of providing these devices to employees. Implementation costs vary significantly depending on the type of hotel and number of employees, but Ogle said that she purposely developed MadeSafe to also control on-property thermostats to save hotels money in the long run.

“We felt we needed to find another reason to help encourage hotels to do the right thing, and money speaks,” Ogle said.

Mitch Langeler, the vice president of talent and culture of Lincolnshire, Illinois-based SMASHotels, said that the React Mobile safety devices used at its three Chicago-area hotels are “a significant investment” but added that “anything we can do to help our employees feel safer is always a good thing.”

“We’ve had a number of discussions with our owner advisory councils, and they’re very supportive that, in the end, the safety and security of our team members is a priority, and that this is a reasonable cost for us to take on to make sure we’re providing a space for a more secure environment,” Hilton’s Nassetta said.

The Power of ‘Me Too’

Melara, for one, credits the Me Too and Time’s Up movements for helping build momentum for this change, and that’s why she is hopeful the city of Long Beach will pass its own ordinance requiring the deployment of safety devices for hotel workers this fall.

“Laws are changing for the better of employees,” she said. “It’s about time. The famous people spoke up and broke their silence about what happened to them and that helped too. It’s all levels of society where this happens — not just housekeeping. It’s everywhere you go.”

Hilton, for its part, is committed to placing safety devices in every one of its franchised and managed hotels in the U.S. by 2020, which accounts for more than 70 percent of its total global portfolio.

Marriott, likewise, is committing to placing employee safety devices in the hands of employees who work at its more than 5,000 managed and franchised hotels throughout the U.S. and Canada by 2020. The company is currently piloting a number of different devices in its hotels.

Earlier this year, however, Marriott made some headlines when a group of female Marriott workers confronted executives about panic buttons at its annual shareholder meeting in May. At the time, company executives told the workers it was “interested” in bringing the devices to destinations “where it made sense.”

“I think this has always been a focus for us, but I think that it is fair to acknowledge that the conversation is changing,” Erika Alexander, Marriott chief lodging services officer for the Americas told Skift. “It is changing with our associates, it’s changing with our customers. And what I feel really good about it is, we’re changing right along with it.”

Changing the Culture of Hospitality

One of the underlying principles of hospitality — the notion that the customer, or the guest, is always right — remains a threat to workers, even when they have access to panic buttons.

“It’s a policy in every single hotel,” said Melara. “If you report something, there are doubts. They’re going to investigate if it’s true or not what you’re saying. It’s your word against his word. The guest is always going to be right no matter what the situation is. They are already blaming you. They don’t ask you for details about how or why it happened. You don’t have a chance at all.”

If these devices and the broader promises being made by the hotel industry are going to work, she said, the industry needs to “change their attitude about their employees. We are human beings, too, just like them, and we are just trying to earn a living.”

Fear of retaliation is another major reason why many of these cases of assault and harassment, in some cases, go unreported.

Alderman Michelle A. Harris, the lead sponsor of Chicago’s panic button ordinance, which went into effect this July, said she wanted to make sure her city’s ordinance had a retaliation clause, especially after she heard the personal stories of a number of local housekeepers who told her what had happened to them on the job.

“I’m not surprised that this happens, because I’m a woman,” Harris said. “I’m surprised at the amount of mess people will take because they have to keep a job. Because of fear of losing a job, you would take things that no one else would ever do. Women always have to prove that people have done something wrong to them. In the past, that’s been terrible. For me, the biggest thing that this takes away is the fear women have of reporting these incidences. Now they have support.”

Hilton’s Nassetta and Marriott’s Alexander both emphasized that, at least for their respective companies, the safety devices are just one part of a broader and continuously evolving solution.

“It’s more than just the devices,” Nassetta said. “It’s about having the proper policies, training and education, safety devices, and then making sure that the work that we’re doing is informed by having the right partnerships and expert guidance from groups that are deep into these issues, and that we continue to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep our team members safe and secure.”

“Sexual harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Tina Tchen, a partner at Buckley Sandler LLP and co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “It happens when you don’t have a culture that’s fully diverse and inclusive. If the last several months have shown us anything, it’s that all that training for sexual harassment for the past three decades hasn’t worked. We need new tools. I really commend the industry here for coming together around this five-star promise.”

But Is This Enough?

While Unite Here is “thrilled that there has been a shift in employer willingness to implement panic buttons,” Gumpert said this “is not a sincere provision unless the [hotel industry] agrees to the other two provisions that we advocate just as strongly.”

Those two provisions include removing guests who are accused of assault, and banning those guests from returning to the hotels where they have committed assault.

The five-year ban, or blacklist that is a part of Seattle’s ordinance was one primary reason why AHLA and other hotel groups sued the city. The controversy surrounding that ban, in particular, prompted Chicago’s Harris to amend the original ordinance.

“The blackball list became too much of a hurdle and a challenge for us, so we decided to push our ordinance without it,” Harris said.

The November ballot measure in Long Beach which Melara is advocating for would require hotels to keep records on guests who have assaulted hotel workers. “It’s so they don’t come back to the same place to do that somebody else,” Melara said.

When asked if Marriott would consider putting in place a policy that removes and/or bans guests who assault its employees, Alexander said it’s a complicated matter, but one that the company takes very seriously, and one she knows from firsthand experience as a general manager and regional team leader of hotels for nearly 30 years.

“We’ve had situations where hotels have had to ban guests,” Alexander said. “I used to run hotels, so I know what it’s like to have those tough conversations. But it’s challenging, and it runs up against other laws, quite candidly, that are designed to protect guests. There’s also inherent complexity in managing this idea around a global portfolio with more than 6,700 or so hotels in every corner of the world.”

Hilton’s Nassetta said that “If we have customers that are putting our team members in harm’s way, we certainly have and would continue to address that, in making sure they are not allowed access to our team members.”

Wyndham’s Ballotti said, “Whenever there’s something our associates  are concerned about, we will follow up … and if that involves any disciplinary action — like banning a guest from even booking on our 800 numbers or online — to the extent possible, we will do so.”

Whether U.S. hotels eventually decide to enact tougher removal and banning policies for guests who assault their employees, it’s clear that today’s announcement, nonetheless, marks a major step forward for the hospitality industry. It’s an acknowledgment that sexual harassment and assault of hotel workers is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Harris said that her work in spearheading Chicago’s panic button ordinance showed her just that.

“These women and these things that happen to them are real,” she said. “Nobody should ever have to deal with this. Just because you work in a hotel doesn’t mean you have to deal with this.”

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Tags: ahla, hilton, hyatt, ihg, marriott, safety, sexual harassment, wyndham

Photo credit: Marriott housekeepers with employee safety devices, or panic buttons. Marriott, along with Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, and Wyndham, is committing to giving panic buttons to its U.S.-based hotel workers by 2020. Marriott International

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