Panic Buttons: Hospitality Workers Sound the Alarm (Hotel Safety Part 2)

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The Joint Evolution of Hotel Safety Technology and Culture

AHLA Five Star Promise and labor union push to protect workers are results of improvements in both tech solutions and mindset

Many U.S. hotels are providing lone workers with security devices such as Bluetooth low-energy or BLE beacons that pinpoint the location of an employee. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, major hotel companies and panic button providers say the technology has evolved to the point it is feasible to provide every hotel employee with a safety device, particular lone workers such as housekeepers.

More than three years ago, research by a Chicago labor union found more than half of women working in hotels were victims of sexual harassment by guests. Unite Here Local 1 serves hospitality workers in the city of Chicago and surrounding areas. The local union surveyed 2,200 female workers in 13 hotels, three casinos and a convention center.

The study revealed nearly 60 percent of hotel workers and nearly 80 percent of casino workers surveyed had been sexually harassed by a guest.

Most of the hotel workers surveyed were housekeepers. Of those, half said they experienced male guests answering their doors naked or exposing themselves once the worker was in the room. Other experiences included being grabbed or inappropriately touched and being cornered or barred from leaving the room.

Most of the women who were harassed no longer felt safe at work.

A Unite Here Local 1 survey of hotel and casino workers in Chicago in 2016 revealed the high level of unease and insecurity faced by respondents. This chart details the types of harassment and abuse the workers experience. Access the full report here.

As a result of the study, Chicago passed an ordinance in July 2018 requiring hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeeping staff. The city is among a wave of municipalities to propose and adopt legislation that would require hotels to expand security measures to employees, especially those who work alone.

Three months later, on Sept. 6, 2018, the American Hotel & Lodging Association held a news conference in Washington, D.C., and announced the launch of its Five Star Promise.

AHLA acknowledged the influence of labor unions in its plan to improve and extend safety and security measures to hotel employees. The time is right, say experts, as technology has evolved along with attitudes and awareness to provide the best available protection industrywide.

AHLA’s five-point initiative is backed by major hotel companies that are members of AHLA, those include Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels Corp. and InterContinental Hotels Group. Each of those company’s CEOs spoke at the news conference.

Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, speaks during a news conference on Sept. 6, 2018, in Washington, D.C., when the American Hotel & Lodging Association announced the rollout of its Five Star Promise, a plan to arm hotel workers with panic buttons and safety training.

Katherine Lugar, then president and CEO of AHLA, announced the initiative, which includes training on diversity and safety; ensuring anti-sexual harassment policies are in place in every hotel; providing ongoing training and education on identifying and reporting sexual harassment; broaden partnerships with other organizations that target sexual assault, human trafficking and promote workplace safety; and providing hotel employees with safety devices.

Lugar said giving housekeepers and other lone workers safety devices is “an additional layer of security” provided by the hotel companies and franchised hotels.

“As part of this commitment the companies here, along with many others are committing to provide an additional layer of security to U.S. hotel employees by deploying safety devices,” Lugar said. “This could be an important line of additional protection, particularly for those workers whose job requires them to go room to room.”

WATCH: AHLA and CEOs of major hotel companies announce the rollout of the association’s Five Star Promise on Sept. 6, 2018, in a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Providing emergency devices for unionized hospitality workers, in particular housekeepers, has been the law in New York City since 2013.

Since then, besides Chicago, cities such as Washington, D.C., Miami Beach and Sacramento and Long Beach, California, have adopted legislation requiring hotels to provide workers with panic buttons, whether or not the hotels are unionized.

New Jersey and Illinois have passed similar legislation and are the first two states to do so. Expect the momentum to continue, say experts.

An Evolution of Care

During the AHLA news conference, Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt Hotels Corp., said the initiative is an expansion of what the Chicago-based company had already been doing.

“This is not a static commitment. This is an evolution,” he said. “As circumstances change, as technology evolves and as the needs change, we will continue to assess, evolve and iterate our policies and our procedures on how our hotels actually operate.”

Hoplamazian said safety and security of hotel employees goes beyond safety devices and includes ongoing training and evaluations of protocols and procedures, such as steps housekeepers take to increase safety when working alone.

It’s important, he said, that Hyatt and other hotel companies take care of their employees so each hotel is can better “extend that sense of care” to guests.

Hyatt put panic buttons in the hands of workers in its corporate-owned hotels in 2017. The company was in the process of rolling out the mandate to its franchised properties when AHLA launched its program.

Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott, said one of the five points of the program is training for company leaders, franchisees and employees.

“It is about creating opportunity for people so that everybody can succeed – no matter who they are, no matter what gender they are, no matter what background they come from – that they have the tools and the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

Elie Maalouf, president and CEO of IHG Americas, noted providing panic buttons to workers is only part of the solution the Five Star Promise aims to provide. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the full plan,” he said, which is aimed at preventing problems in the first place.

Unions Push for More

Lugar acknowledged labor unions’ influence and impact on the AHLA program, noting she looked forward to meeting with union leadership over the issue.

Lugar left AHLA in December and Chip Rogers is now president and CEO.

AHLA declined to be interviewed to update its Five Star Promise, which marks its one-year anniversary this month. An association spokeswoman said the association plans a public update of its own.

Rachel Gumpert, press secretary for the Unite Here office in Washington, D.C., said while the panic button promise is a significant step for AHLA and the hotel industry as a whole, in most cases worker-protection laws and policies do not go far enough.

For instance, if the safety program is to be truly effective, hotels must adopt a policy of removing the troubling guest from the property, she said.

Based on past experiences, the union is not confident AHLA and its members will expand their policies to include that step.

So far, the courts have come down on the side of the hotel industry.

Last year, AHLA, the Washington Hospitality Association and the Seattle Hotel Association were successful in challenging a two-fold law in Seattle that required panic buttons for workers coupled with the right of a hotel to ban the accused guest from the property for three years.

Washington’s State Court of Appeals overturned the law in December, ruling guest removal and banishment is unconstitutional. The court also decided the ordinance went against the rule that a law can address only one issue or topic.

Lugar said in a statement the Seattle ordinance violated the due process rights of guests and placed hotel employees in the role of law enforcement, without proper training.

AHLA has opposed panic button proposals in cities, saying it’s a ploy by labor unions to expand safety proposals to include wage increases and other workplace mandates.

Gumpert said AHLA’s Five Star Promise is an effort to get ahead of the unions and their campaigns for hotel worker safety laws. She accused AHLA from “leading from behind” on the issue of worker safety.

Unite Here has appealed the Washington court’s decision, and Gumpert says the union is confident it will succeed, especially as the issue gains more public awareness in the #Metoo era.

Technology Improves

Robb Monkman is founder and CEO of ReactMobile. He started the company about 10 years ago for college students after a harrowing experience of his own.

When Monkman was a college student, he and his roommates were robbed at gunpoint. The home invasion and hostage taking rocked Monkman to his core and determined the course of his career.

“With a gun pointed at my forehead, there was no way for me to call for help,” he said.

Monkman became passionate about personal safety and created ReactMobile to provide college students with panic buttons. The solution was so popular whole universities wanted to provide them for students and staff. The company grew into a B2B provider for other large organizations such as health care and hospitality.

The technology has evolved and improved to the point that hotels of all sizes can integrate them into their security plans.

“Safety is now more than ever top of mind with hotels, with large enterprises,” he said. “The safety button of the past was helpful, but the traditional panic button just doesn’t work in today’s world.

“When you look at problems like locating employees inside of buildings down to what room they’re located in, the floor that they’re on; that is the problem we are solving today.”

Hotel Technology Next Generation in April published a buyer’s guide for safety technology. Access the guide here.

More Than The Device

Paul Frederick, a security and safety expert and co-founder of Hospitality Security Advisors, said training is key to ensuring panic buttons do the job they are created to do.

But the industry has to go further and adopt a zero-tolerance policy to ensure the safety of employees, including sales people who go off-site in the course of their jobs, said Frederick, who led safety and security programs for Hilton Worldwide and Starwood Hotels & Resorts before he founded his company.

Lewd behavior by hotel guests is never acceptable, Frederick said. As the Unite Here report demonstrates, “there are housekeeping employees who think this behavior is acceptable.”

“Management needs to take a stand and react appropriately when that happens,” said Frederick, “They need to make sure they have a strong workplace violence policy and a strong harassment free policy.”

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