Panic Buttons: CA Preps to Add New Protections for Hotel Workers

Chriss Swaney

Sacramento, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – California lawmakers are working to approve a new law (AB1761) designed to protect hotel workers from assaults or other serious emergencies on the job by using a mobile panic button, among other safety measures.

The bill has passed through the Assembly Floor, with 48 yes votes, and 18 in disagreement.

According to Kerry Jacob, communications director for Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, the bill stems from a similar ordinance passed in Seattle to protect hotel housekeepers. The proposed California bill also demands that prior to starting to work, a hotel employer must inform an employee that he or she is assigned to work alone in a room of a guest who is on a “blacklist,” and warn the employee to “exercise caution when entering the guest’s room.”

Hotels are under new scrutiny when it comes to keeping their employees safe at work, even when the threat doesn’t come from other workers. For example, a California court recently ruled that a hotel worker could sue her employer under state law after she was allegedly raped by a trespasser on the property.

But not everyone is in concurrence with the recently introduced California bill to address safety for hotel workers. The California Hotel & Lodging Association has some specific issues with the impending legislation.

“While we support and practice proactive measures, we disagreed with the proposed state legislation (AB1761) as it is a one-size-fits-all approach that initially sought to violate the individual right to due process of accused guests by requiring hotels to compile and maintain a ‘blacklist’ for three years without the right of appeal. It also seeks to impose work rules that may not benefit the employees it is intended to support,” according to Taylor Collison, legislative and communications coordinator for the California Hotel & Lodging Association and the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns.

Collison said California hotels are extremely safe and said their track record proves that.

“Although even one case of sexual harassment is one too many, the incidents of reported assaults or harassment of California hotel employees; thankfully, are low because of the preventive steps taken by our members. In Long Beach, for example, the police department reported only two incidents during most of 2017.”

Collison also argues that for decades California hotels have provided vigilant training and education to prevent issues before they occur.

“The safety of our employees and guests is a top priority. While no industry is immune to sexual harassment, our industry has mandated procedures and protocols in place, including panic buttons, for employees to prevent and report incidents,” according to Collison.

Workers’ advocates have been pushing hotels to equip housekeepers with mobile panic buttons to protect them from guests. In Seattle, hotel workers carry electronic whistles and GPS-equipped buttons that alert security.

The nationwide move to protect hotel employees has been growing since 2013 when New York City housekeepers in all unionized hotels were equipped with panic buttons. UNITE HERE — the hotel workers union — made the mobile panic buttons an issue after a housekeeper accused Dominique Strauss Kahn — the then head of the International Monetary Fund — of sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn denied the allegations and reached a settlement with the housekeeper in 2012.

“Hotel workers often work alone, cleaning room after room — thus making them vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances and worse, victims of assault. I am proud to be working on this bill with Assemblymember Muratsuchi to not only raise awareness on the issue, but do more to create a safer working environment for hotel workers,” said Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-20) of California. Muratsuchi represents California’s 66th Assembly District.

“UNITE HERE has supported similar legislation in Washington state and the state of Illinois. Our Union is eager to support this type of legislation around the country since it would help to protect workers in the hospitality industry from harassment from individuals who have acted with impunity over many years. Although we have protections against harassment in our contracts in the unionized hospitality industry, the workers in the nonunion industry would benefit the most from this important bill,” said Jack Gribbon, UNITE HERE, California political director.