To Battle Sexual Harassment of Hotel Workers, Businesses and Cities Continue to Push for Panic Buttons

Supermajority Education Fund

January 13, 2020

Although Harvey Weinstein’s trial continues to dominate headlines, news of the #MeToo movement’s impact abounds in other industries as well. The Sacramento City Council will vote next week on whether 80 hotels in the city should provide panic buttons — portable devices with GPS that allow workers to alert security that they feel threatened — for employees who work in guest rooms and restrooms. 

Some states have already passed requirements that hotels provide workers panic buttons. In July, New Jersey became the first state to legalize that requirement. In August, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a bill into law that requires workers who work alone in guest rooms, restrooms, and casino floors to be provided a panic button by their employer. 

Unionized hotel workers have also secured the panic button as one of their labor victories. In 2018, 2,500 San Francisco Marriott hotel workers included panic buttons into their contract negotiations and received them. That same year, casino operators Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts provided panic buttons in contract negotiations with unions.

Sexual harassment is rampant in the hospitality industry. According to an analysis from the Center for American Progress that looked at sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Commission from 2005 to 2015, hotel and restaurant workers accounted for 14.2 percent of claims — the highest percentage of all of the industries that were analyzed. 

Not all efforts to require hotels to give their workers panic buttons have gone smoothly, though. After the city of Miami Beach passed an ordinance in 2018 requiring hotels to provide housekeepers and room attendants panic buttons, hotels settled for cheap noisemakers instead of devices that use GPS to pinpoint a worker’s location. The city had to send letters to hotels in 2019 telling them that they weren’t meeting the requirements. 

Some advocates point out that panic buttons don’t adequately address sexual harassment because low wages are at the root of the problem. The minimum wage for tipped employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act is $2.13 an hour. As Diana Ramirez, One Fair Wage Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, pointed out to Supermajority News, almost 70 percent of tipped workers are women.

Despite the use of panic buttons, Ramirez said, “the underlying power structures of sexual harassment and sexual assault are still the same, right? You still have a worker who is relying on tips and the satisfaction of the client in order for them to make their minimum wage, and that is one of the structures we are trying to break and redevelop.”

She added, “As long as the Fair Labor Standards Act allows this to happen, we’re going to continue to see the continued oppression of women, people of color, immigrants, who are the ones who are in these tipped positions.”