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

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The state hotel association has requested an extension of the deadline to install panic buttons in hotel rooms, concerned that implementation is proving more costly and complicated than anticipated.


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.

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