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

"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 called TraknProtect, 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.

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