Regulations requiring panic alarm buttons for hotel workers first appeared in 2012 in both Washington DC and New York City. Since then similar policies have been adopted by other cities and hotel chains across North America. Seattle passed a similar city-wide law in 2016. Then in the summer of 2018 what might have been the most comprehensive safety ordinance yet for hotel service workers went into effect in Chicago.
After that, 17 hotel chains—including Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott—committed to providing employee safety solutions to all of their US-based hotels by the end of 2020. Now a law similar to Seattle’s and Chicago’s goes into effect in Miami Beach in August of this year. And a sweeping statewide law is working its way through the California legislature.
Let’s take a look at why these regulations are being so rapidly adopted, what they look like in practice, and what hotels—both large hospitality groups and individual upscale boutique hotels alike—need to know about compliance.
Combatting a Serious Problem
In 2016 the hotel service workers union Unite Here surveyed hotel workers nation-wide and found that 58% reported being sexually harassed by guests. Wider industry data backs up that survey’s stark findings. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the combined hospitality and food service sector has the highest rate of filed sexual harassment charges of all business sectors.
Both criminal charges for such incidents, as well as lawsuits against employers, have risen as this threat has come more to light. EEOC data also shows that over 25% of workplace sexual harassment criminal charges over the past decade in the US came from industries largely staffed by service workers, including hospitality.
What Do These Regulations Look Like?
The Chicago ‘Hands Off, Pants On’ ordinance is a good example to consider. It requires hotels to provision a “portable emergency contact device”—commonly called a duress or panic button—to any employee assigned to enter guest rooms alone.
The ordinance also mandates that hotels must maintain and comply with their own anti-sexual harassment policies. Hotels that either don’t furnish staff with panic buttons or fail to maintain their own policy face daily recurring fines of between $250 and $500 per incident.
What Hotels Can Do Now
The risks to workers are real. So are the penalties to employers for failing to protect them. So what can hotels do now, especially if there are new regulations incoming in their jurisdiction? Let’s take the Chicago ordinance as an example again. The ordinance breaks down into two main parts:
1) Provision Panic Buttons to Staff
Selecting the duress or panic button solution that’s right for both a particular hotel’s floor plan and its budget is the largest challenge here. There are a broad range of systems on the market. Most duress buttons come as either a wearable pendant or as a bracelet, like a wristwatch. Housekeeping staff surveyed by Unite Here anecdotally preferred bracelet buttons, which allow for more discreet alerting in high-risk situations. But seeking staff input is advisable, as needs will change by venue.
At the low end of the market are alarm bracelets that simply issue a loud alert when pressed. These are akin to a car alarm, designed to deter threats in progress but not actually notify security. These audible systems are less expensive, but may not be suitable for venues that need rapid security response or need to maintain a high level of discretion or customer care.
The medium to high end of the market is made up mostly of systems that notify managers or security to incidents through a wireless connection. Either an existing business WiFi network or through short range RFID wireless. These wireless systems further break down into how accurate their location information can be. Some can detect a worker’s distance from a wireless node, while other precision systems can be tuned to detect the exact room a duress alert is coming from.
2) Maintain an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy
A policy is only as good as its enforcement, so more than anything else make sure your business’s leadership is involved and invested in carrying out the new anti-sexual harassment policy under development.
Your policy should lay out in simple language what behavior from guests counts as sexual harassment or assault. Much like security professionals shouldn’t be left guessing about next steps during incident response, service workers should never be left guessing whether to report an incident.
Your policy should also lay out in simple language what will happen when an employee reports an assault or harassment. This is critical in order to have your employees report quickly and efficiently, and for security and HR teams to know how to respond.
Then, provide training to your workers, security staff, managers, and HR personnel so that everyone involved in potential harassment responses and investigations is able to react as fast as possible.
With new regulations going into effect city-by-city and corporation-by-corporation across North America, service worker safety is both a critical and complex area of hotel security. But hopefully seeing what some of the existing regulations look like, and how to implement the technology and policies they require, can give you a jump on compliance at your hotel.