Chicago Hotels Roll Out Panic Button Systems To Protect Housekeepers From Sexual Harassment

by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, on Jun 7, 2018 10:13:00 AM


As Chicago hotels gear up for the busy summer tourist season, they are pushing to meet a July 1 deadline to supply their housekeepers with panic buttons.

The portable buttons, mandated in an ordinance that won unanimous City Council approval in October, allow employees to instantly summon help if they are sexually assaulted or harassed by a guest – a job hazard worker advocates say is more common than most people realize.

The state hotel association has requested an extension of the deadline, concerned that implementation is proving more costly and complicated than anticipated. But some local hoteliers have embraced the responsibility.

“It’s a nice add-on to our already communicative environment,” said Mitch Langeler, vice president of talent and culture at SMASHotels, a hospitality management company that runs theWit in the Loop, Fairfield Inn and Suites in Streeterville and the boutique hotel EMC2. “Anything that keeps our employees safe, or more safe, is absolutely welcomed.”

EMC2, a 195-room hotel in Streeterville, rolled out a panic button system when it opened a year ago, Langeler said. Anyone whose job requires entering guest rooms alone — not only housekeepers, but also engineering and room service staff — receives a button fob at the start of their shift to wear around their neck on a lanyard, plus an iPod that interacts with the hotel’s existing communication system to track their location.

When the button is pressed, a message instantaneously goes to the cellphones of supervisors — including the general manager, director of security and director of human resources — that includes the device number, the name of the employee in distress and room number where she is located.

Though there have been no incidents so far that have led workers to push the buttons, Langeler said he believes them to be worthwhile, as they could be used for any number of emergencies, such as if a housekeeper detects smoke in a hallway.

“In my 20 years of HR this was one of the most seamless implementations I have ever been involved in,” he said. “The device is simple, the training is simple. If you’re ever in an uncomfortable situation, you push a button.”

The new system wasn’t a stretch for the technologically hip EMC2, which counts among its staff two robots, Leo and Cleo, that deliver items like water or toothpaste to guests’ rooms. Langeler also anticipates a smooth rollout at theWit and Fairfield because the panic button system, by React Mobile, interacts with the hotels’ existing digital communication system, used when housekeepers submit maintenance requests to the engineering department.

But not all hotels are having such an easy time. In addition to spending tens of thousands of dollars implementing new technology, some are finding it is taking longer than expected to test the systems, train employees on how to use them and field concerns from corporate attorneys and insurance companies about liability should the systems not work, said Marc Gordon, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association. The large brands, in particular, want more time “to make sure everything is done properly,” he said.

“This is a massive project,” Gordon said. “Everybody is pretty upset because we were assured that this thing would be relatively inexpensive and relatively simple, and it has been anything but.”

In addition to seeking an extension of the July 1 deadline, the association has asked for an amendment to the ordinance to specify that only workers who clean must receive panic buttons. Currently the ordinance applies to any employee who works alone in guest rooms or bathrooms, which could include bellhops and room service attendants.

Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th, lead sponsor of the ordinance, plans to file an amendment soon clarifying what types of workers must receive panic buttons. As for the deadline: “There will be no extension,” Harris said.

Chicago is the second city in the United States, after Seattle, to enact a law requiring hotels to distribute panic buttons, though unionized hotels in New York City have had the requirement in their contracts since 2013. Unite Here, a union with some 270,000 members across the U.S. and Canada, made it an issue in New York after a housekeeper at the Sofitel in Manhattan accused French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, of assaulting her while she tried to clean his room.

In Chicago, Unite Here Local 1, which represents 15,000 hospitality employees, led the campaign for the city’s panic button law after releasing a survey in 2016 of nearly 500 women working at hotels and casinos in the Chicago area. The survey found that 58 percent of hotel workers had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment by guests, which could include sexually suggestive looks or gestures, as well as being pressured for dates or sexual favors. By far the most common incident, reported by nearly half of hotel workers surveyed, involved guests answering the door naked or exposing themselves.

Gordon, of the lodging association, disputes the portrayal of the hotel industry as rife with sexual harassment; some instances of naked guests could be accidental, he said.

Still, “we support protecting employees,” and panic buttons “could be helpful,” he said.

Several major brands contacted by the Tribune said they are on track to comply with Chicago’s ordinance — and Marriott went further in expressing support for panic buttons generally.

“Marriott believes these types of devices can enhance the security/well-being of both our associates and guests,” Erika Alexander, Marriott International’s chief lodging services officer for the Americas, said in an emailed statement.

Marriott is working on a pilot of technology that could be used across its varied properties, which range from sprawling resorts to urban towers to standard suburban hotels, and is collecting employee feedback on the design, Alexander said. She suggested the company may introduce the distress system chainwide, even in markets where it is not mandated.

“We are looking at a solution for our managed hotels while also encouraging our franchise hotels to move in the same direction, preferably leveraging our future technology solution and pricing,” Alexander said. “We still have some work left to do as we finish the pilot but we hope to have news to share soon.”

In addition to panic buttons, Chicago’s ordinance requires hotels to maintain written policies that encourage workers to report incidents of sexual harassment by guests and lay out procedures that will be followed when they do. The policies must state workers can leave the area where they feel endangered and be reassigned to work away from the offending guest, without fear of retaliation from their employer.

“We are creating a new culture where it’s encouraged to report this,” said Sarah Lyons, spokeswoman for Unite Here Local 1, whose effort was backed by the Chicago Federation of Labor. To help ensure compliance, the union has distributed wallet cards to workers describing their new rights so they can contact the city’s Commission on Human Relations, which is charged with enforcing the ordinance, if their hotels are in violation.

Chicago’s successful campaign has helped drive momentum nationally, and the union has been pushing to incorporate panic button requirements into workers’ new contracts, most recently at the MGM and Caesars casinos in Las Vegas. But many hotels are not unionized, so the goal is to put the mandate in legislation, said Rachel Gumpert, spokeswoman for the national organization. Campaigns for panic button laws are underway in Miami and in California, where a statewide bill has been introduced.

Though the union’s efforts predate the Me Too movement, the surge of attention given to sexual harassment in recent months has created a friendly political climate for the housekeepers’ cause.

“We have seen so much more traction than we have in the past,” Gumpert said.

Juana Melara, a hotel housekeeper in Long Beach, Calif., helped collect 46,000 signatures to get a panic button measure on that city’s ballot this November, and expects voters will support it. Last year Long Beach lawmakers voted down a panic button bill, which to Melara seems unconscionable given what she has experienced during more than 20 years on the job.

Melara, 53, said that on numerous occasions male guests have asked her, while she cleaned their rooms, if she gives personal massages. She recalls one particularly upsetting incident, when she was scrubbing a bathtub and looked up to a see a man standing in the doorway staring at her. Later, as she searched for something in her cart in the hallway, the man, who did not appear to be a guest, walked toward her and exposed himself. There was no one around to help.

Melara called her supervisor, police eventually came and she filled out a report. But Melara, who asked to go home, was told she had to stay and finish her shift, and “nothing changed” to address the safety concern.

Some guests “think that the room attendant is part of the package when they stay in the hotel, another amenity in the room,” Melara said. “We will feel a lot more confident in our work once we have the button.”

A nascent industry of panic button makers is meeting the emerging demand.

At the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile last month, Texas-based Enseo was demonstrating its distress device, called MadeSafe, that it developed four years ago with the J.W. Essex House in New York.


The system, which costs about $100 per room, was manufactured using feedback from the hotel’s housekeepers, said Vanessa Ogle, CEO of Enseo, which provides hotels with in-room entertainment solutions and other technology services.

What makes the system effective is its accurate location reporting, Ogle said. When activated, the panic button transmits a geolocation signal via Bluetooth technology installed in each room, and the hotel’s security station receives the name and location of the employee on a 3D property map. Designated supervisors also receive a text and email.

MadeSafe is being used in about 50 hotels in various markets, and so far the most common alert cause has been guests taking their clothes off in front of housekeepers, Ogle said. She was surprised to discover that even her installers have witnessed disrobed guests while working to install the necessary equipment.

“It’s amazing how differently people behave in hotel rooms,” she said.

Not all distress systems will fly with Chicago’s ordinance.

The law requires that the device “effectively summon to the employee’s location prompt assistance by a hotel security officer, manager or other appropriate hotel staff member.”

Hyatt said that last fall it became one of the first hotel brands to voluntarily make “personal distress alarms” available to employees who enter guest rooms at all of its hotels nationwide, but in Chicago it is in the process of implementing alternative devices with location-specific functions to comply with the new law.

Hotel Felix, a 228-room boutique hotel in River North, plans to use a system which involved installing adapters in each of its guest rooms and public restrooms that feed off the Wi-Fi and send texts and emails to designated personnel alerting them to the location of the worker who has pressed her panic button. The signal pings every 10 seconds so that the worker’s location is updated if she moves, general manager Todd Vanwinkle said. He declined to say how much it costs.

The system is in a test phase and the hotel plans to conduct training with housekeepers in coming weeks. Vanwinkle said in 17 years in the business, “I have never seen an issue where anyone would need a panic button,” but he said he supports measures to improve safety.

“It’s a really simple process, to be honest. It’s not too difficult,” he said. “It looks like a great opportunity at the end of the day.”

In Seattle, the first city to approve a panic button law in 2016, housekeepers are reporting that they feel safer, said Abby Lawlor, an organizer for Unite Here Local 8. That city’s law got heavy pushback from the hotel industry because it included additional provisions that Chicago’s didn’t, including that guests would be banned from a hotel for three years if a worker made a sworn statement accusing them of harassment.

As far as Lawlor knows, the buttons have not yet been used in Seattle to summon help for sexual harassment. But they did come in handy when a group of housekeepers got stuck in an elevator.

As Seen In The Chicago Tribune

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