Seattle Initiative 124 would extend new protections to hotel housekeepers and other workers. Opponents say its chief aim is to build union membership.

Share story

Dwarfed by Hillary and The Donald and overshadowed by a gubernatorial race and several high-profile measures, Seattle Initiative 124 won’t be the section most voters complete first on the Nov. 8 ballot.

But the initiative — which would give new rights and benefits to hotel housekeepers — is getting plenty of attention from those workers, their employers and labor leaders.

The measure would require hotels to provide housekeepers with panic buttons, track guests accused of harassment, limit housekeeper workloads, help thousands of low-wage employees pay for health care and retain workers during ownership transfers, among other things.

The Unite Here! Local 8 hospitality-workers union, which wrote and advanced I-124, argues the measure would protect a workforce of mostly immigrant women from sexual harassment and on-the-job injuries while helping them better provide for their families.

“There’s a growing recognition that women working in isolation, especially immigrant women, are at incredible risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault,” said Abby Lawlor, Local 8 spokeswoman, describing the panic-button requirement as one provision among many in I-124’s “holistic” approach to helping housekeepers.

“You may have a panic button, but if you’re rushing every day to complete your room quota, that’s not safe. That’s not healthy,” she said. “If you don’t have health insurance at the end of the day for yourself and your family, that’s not safe. That’s not healthy.”

Opponents say I-124 is a complicated and unhelpful measure, and claim Local 8’s main aim is to make business more difficult for non-unionized hotels in Seattle.

Only 17 percent of the city’s hotel workers are unionized, according to Local 8.

The foes of the initiative say a provision requiring hotels to keep a list of accused guests could spawn legal problems, and note that other provisions could be waived by union workers.

“This initiative was written for headlines — to pull at heartstrings and paint us as horrible employers,” said Jenne Oxford, Seattle Hotel Association president.

“We don’t oppose the themes at all. We just oppose the way the initiative was written by (Local 8). Their goal isn’t to protect employees. It’s to drive union membership.”

Survey findings

Seattle Protects Women, the campaign for I-124, reports raising more than $400,000.

Local 8 has given $240,000, while a Martin Luther King County Labor Council group, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 31 and numerous other unions also have donated.

Much of the money helped pay signature gathers to get I-124 on the ballot over the summer.

The opposing campaign, the Committee for Equal Application of Laws, has raised more than $258,000.

Top contributors include the American Hotel and Lodging Association, Washington Lodging Association, Washington Restaurant Association and many Seattle hotels.

Local 8 has heard countless stories about sexual harassment by guests but data is scarce, so the union and Puget Sound Sage recently surveyed union housekeepers downtown, Lawlor says, pointing out that such behavior tends to go underreported.

Of the 99 workers who answered questions, 52 reported sexual harassment by guests — 262 total incidents. The housekeepers said they had been blocked from leaving a room in eight incidents, physically harassed in 17 and flashed in 175.

Such incidents may be more common for room-service workers like Ida Calderon. The 46-year-old Local 8 member works in SeaTac but has been campaigning for I-124.

Calderon says she once had a guest call down to request 14 shots of vodka and her in a French-maid outfit. She’s been confronted by a naked male guest in his room before.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Calderon said. “It’s something we (workers) always discuss. ‘I’m going to go for his eyes.’ ‘I’m going for his unmentionables.’ ”

Oxford says a concern is how I-124 would in some cases make hotels bar accused guests for years and in others notify workers about such guests checking in again.

“There could be some defamation of the guest,” she said. “We want to protect our employees but we also have a responsibility to the guests staying with us.”

Limits on work

I-124 would limit housekeepers to cleaning 5,000 square feet in a normal workday, a cap Maria Estrada says only makes sense. The 52-year-old union housekeeper says many of her co-workers skip lunch and deal with back and knee pain as they race to clean 15 rooms per day. Workloads can be heavier at nonunion hotels, Estrada says.

“These pains are due to lifting the mattresses, stripping the beds, vacuuming and cleaning all the mirrors,” she said, recalling her own surgeries for carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Estrada felt like her wrists burned — “like ants,” and her hands cramped up.

Hotel owners opposing the measure claim that training for housekeepers and practices such as having a male helper collect heavy towels are better ways to prevent injuries

I-124’s health-insurance mandate makes for confusing reading. Proponents say it would guarantee low-wage workers good coverage at a cost of no more 6 percent of their income, with employers paying the balance. Oxford predicts bureaucratic hassles.

The insurance help would only be required of large hotels — at least 100 rooms.

The “No” side spokeswoman calls I-124’s special treatment for unionized hotels a “carve-out” that proves Local 8 doesn’t truly care about workers. Only the harassment-related provisions could not be waived by a worker vote in collective bargaining.

Proponents argue the waiver option would allow for flexibility in bargaining and therefore help unionized workers get what they want most, when they want it.

Lawlor says I-124 may “expose more hotel workers in the city to the work of the union” — not a bad thing. But she says Local 8 isn’t confident rolls would grow.

“To the extent it could open up the possibility of workers starting more conversations about organizing, we’d welcome that. But we have no expectations,” Lawlor said.