Hotels across the country are giving housekeepers panic buttons to call for help. But measures that punish accused guests are much more contentious.

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The hotel industry is betting that a simple device can help solve the complex problem of guests sexually assaulting and harassing workers.

It is known as a panic button, a small gadget that housekeepers can use to swiftly call for help. The technology takes different forms, including GPS devices that track employees as they walk through the building, buttons that emit an audible alarm and smartphone apps.

After a yearlong cascade of stories about the sexual harassment of hotel workers, questions about how to address the problem remain largely unanswered. The most popular solution, one that hotel executives and labor activists can agree on, is small enough to fit in a pocket.

Through company policy or legislation pushed by local officials, panic buttons have become increasingly widespread at hotels across the country. But the hotel industry has fiercely resisted measures that would punish the accused, saying that they would threaten guests’ due process rights.

Juana Melara, a housekeeper in Southern California, believes a panic button could have gotten her out of a frightening situation several years ago when she was working in Cerritos, California.

Melara said she was cleaning a bathtub in a hotel room when she turned to see a guest staring at her. She asked him to leave the room and went on her break. When she returned to her housekeeping cart, she said, the man was walking in the hallway toward her with his penis pulled through his pants.

“I was so scared, I said, ‘Oh my God, what do I do?’” Melara said in an interview. “The rooms were empty — there were a lot of checkouts on Sunday. There was not anyone who could hear me.”

Melara, 53, said she escaped into a nearby room and locked the door. She called her supervisor and the front desk but said that no one came to the room for about 20 minutes.

When she moved to Long Beach, California, years later, Melara continued to work as a housekeeper and began organizing with UNITE HERE, a union that represents hotel workers that was advocating a law mandating panic buttons at hotels. Statewide legislation failed earlier this year, but on Tuesday, separate ballot measures in Long Beach and Oakland requiring panic buttons at hotels of a certain size passed easily.

During the past year, Seattle has become the main battleground for the industry and the hospitality union’s dueling interests. Two years ago, voters approved a ballot measure mandating panic buttons and instituting a system that would place guests accused of sexual misconduct on a blacklist, which would make hotel workers aware of their presence but not bar them.

Under the ordinance, if a hotel worker makes a sworn statement accusing a guest of sexual misconduct or if evidence supports the accusation, the guest would be barred from returning to that hotel for three years. If the worker makes the accusation without signing an affidavit, the guest’s name will be added to the list for five years. If the worker agrees, the hotel should report the allegations to police.

In late 2016, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the main trade group representing major hotel chains, and other local trade organizations sued the city over the ordinance. The groups argued that requiring hotel management to bar and blacklist guests would violate guests’ due-process rights.

“That told us loud and clear that the industry was more concerned about their guests’ comfort level than protecting their employees from sexual harassment,” said Erik Van Rossum, president of UNITE HERE’s chapter in the Northwest, which covers Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

The hotel and lodging association counters that workers’ safety is a top priority. But Katherine Lugar, the association’s president, said it objected to the ordinance partly because “we don’t believe it’s prudent to put a Seattle employee in the position of acting as a surrogate for law enforcement.”

If you need help

News reports of sexual-assault allegations could be a trigger for victims and survivors of abuse. Here are some resources:
  • The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center offers a 24-hour resource line (888-998-6423). Additionally, KCSARC can help connect people with therapy, legal advocates and family services (kcsarc.org/gethelp).
  • UW Medicine’s Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress (depts.washington.edu/hcsats) offers resources, including counseling and medical care. For immediate help, call 206-744-1600.
  • For readers outside King County, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs lists 38 Washington state providers that offer free services. (wcsap.org/find-help)
  • RAINN: Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network provides a free, confidential hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat (hotline.rainn.org) with trained staff members.

In June 2017, a judge ruled in favor of the city, but the trade groups appealed and were back in court arguing their case this month.

While the hotel trade group fights these rules, it has embraced panic buttons as worth a significant financial investment. Chicago officials estimated that a hotel security system including panic buttons with tracking capabilities would cost about $100 per room. The lower-tech option that emits an audible alarm is about $25 per device, a Hyatt spokeswoman said.

This fall, 17 hotel brands — including major chains like Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott — said they would put the safety devices in place at all their hotels across the country by 2020.

Industry groups were not always enthusiastic backers of the devices. Lugar said the trade association previously had concerns that the hotel union was using worker safety as a “fig leaf for labor’s laundry list of other wants and desires.”

Panic buttons were under consideration, and in some places, in operation, before the #MeToo movement, Lugar said. But the cultural reckoning has clearly played into the industry’s calculations.

For many years, business leaders rarely prioritized protecting their workers, said Tina Tchen, a lawyer who served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Management did only as much as the law required when it came to sexual harassment policies and training, said Tchen, who advised hotel chains this year on the panic button initiative.

“One of the failings of the past is that we looked at anti-sexual-harassment policies and trainings as one-size-fits-all,” she said. “That’s why people tuned out.”

Before the hotel industry embraced panic buttons, cities including Chicago and Miami Beach, Florida, mandated them through ordinances passed by their city councils. Collective bargaining agreements have also required the devices at union hotels.

New York was the first city to require panic buttons on a broad scale when the provision was included in a contract struck in 2012, the year after a hotel housekeeper accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the chief of the International Monetary Fund and a French politician, of sexually assaulting her. Washington, D.C., followed suit with its own agreement.

But enacting legislation that includes measures to punish guests has proved difficult in the shadow of Seattle’s legal battle. In California and Chicago, the bills initially were supposed to be modeled on Seattle’s ordinance, including the provisions on barring and blacklisting certain guests. Later, those provisions were abandoned.

Laws in cities including Seattle and Chicago require hotels to maintain sexual harassment policies with procedures to follow if an employee reports harassment by a guest, such as allowing them to temporarily work at a location separate from the alleged harasser.

Some hotels are encountering practical challenges as they put the panic button technology in place. Four months after Chicago mandated panic buttons, some small hotels are struggling to pay for the technology, said Alderman Michelle Harris. Larger hotels, she noted, had faced challenges with establishing reliable Wi-Fi connections in every corner of their buildings.

In California, Al Muratsuchi, an Assembly member who spearheaded the legislation there, said he had not given up on a statewide law. Although he wants to find a way to punish guests accused of sexual misconduct, he said the panic buttons are the first step.