In the #MeToo era, US hotels are giving workers panic buttons

A long time coming.
A long time coming.
Image: Reuters/Paul Hackett
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The #MeToo movement has brought to light all manner of horror concerning incidents of sexual harassment. Because many of these stories have concerned high-profile women in high-profile industries like entertainment and technology, less attention has been paid to service sectors of the economy.

That’s why it’s notable that, last week, some of the world’s largest hotel brands—Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Wyndham, and InterContinential Hotels Group among them—announced a joint initiative to equip hotel workers at US properties with panic buttons.

The industry-led commitment to sexual-assault prevention and reporting is being called “5-Star Promise.” In addition to providing employees with safety devices—which can take the form of a key fob or lanyard—the pledge includes providing training on safety and security, establishing mandatory, multilingual anti-harassment policies, training on identifying and reporting sexual harassment, and forging partnerships with national organizations that promote workplace safety and the reduction of sexual violence.

As Katherine Lugar, president and CEO at American Hotel & Lodging Association, which also backed the initiative, wrote on LinkedIn, the commitment “is the result of our member companies working together toward a shared goal to better serve our employees. This effort started last year when our board of directors and executive committee created a task force to examine current procedures and practices, including emerging technology solutions.”

In some US cities—including New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington DC—local ordinances meant that hotel employees were already equipped with these devices. The MadeSafe device, for example, was created in the wake of the arrest of French politician Dominic Strauss Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a housekeeper employed by Sofitel, in 2011. (The criminal case was dismissed and a civil suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.) However, the CEO of Enseo, which manufactures the device, told Skift last week that interest in implementing it only came “when there were municipal mandates or a housekeeping union mandate. Only when they had to do it did they invest the money.”

Just how widespread is the problem of sexual assault in the industry? According to the Center for American Progress, between 2005 and 2015, sexual harassment complaints from workers in the hospitality industry made up over 14% of sexual harassment complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a larger proportion than any other industry. Furthermore, Unite the Union, a UK-based labor union for hospitality workers, found in a survey that 89% of workers had experienced an incident of sexual harassment at work.

It’s worth noting that hotel workers and the labor unions that represent them have been lobbying for safety devices for some time—and are still asking for further action, including banning guests who commit assault. So, while it’s promising to see hotels finally stepping up to the plate, it’s hard not to see that it’s the current cultural climate that is what finally forced them to do so, not the voices of hotel employees.