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Sexual harassment is common, hotel workers say. Would panic buttons help?

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez plans to create added protections for hotel workers in Miami Beach, including arming them with panic buttons to report sexual harassment or assault.
Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez plans to create added protections for hotel workers in Miami Beach, including arming them with panic buttons to report sexual harassment or assault. Getty Images

The wave of opposition to sexual harassment — at least in the workplace — is crashing over Miami Beach.

The tourism town, where the majority of Miami-Dade’s estimated 11,500 housekeepers and other hotel workers are employed, may soon be the nation’s next city to enact laws aimed at protecting hotel workers from assault or improper advances by hotel guests. The move follows a national reckoning against sexual harassment that has exposed alleged offenders including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and morning talk show host Matt Lauer.

The Miami Beach proposal is modeled after mandatory practices in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle, that arm staff with panic buttons in case there is an incident. The portable panic buttons would be connected to hotel security or management, allowing them to act quickly if a worker is harassed or assaulted.

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez wants the city to consider an ordinance that would require hotels to provide workers with panic buttons to report sexual harassment or assault.

The laws also create a framework for reporting incidents, including allowing workers to contact police, prohibiting hotels from firing workers who speak out and monitoring guests who act improperly toward staff.

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez wants to see similar rules in Miami Beach. On Wednesday, she will ask the city commission to refer discussion of a potential sexual harassment ordinance to the Neighborhood/Community Affairs Committee, the first step in what could become an ordinance similar to one passed in Chicago in October.

For now, the Miami Beach ordinance would likely require hotels to provide employee panic buttons; develop, maintain and comply with a sexual harassment policy; and create an anti-retaliation provision that protects employees who report incidents of sexual harassment. The ordinance is still in the early stages of development, Rosen Gonzalez said in an interview.

“We have to find out what is the rate of sexual harassment and find out if this is necessary,” she said. “Once we have that survey research, we are going to move forward.”

In Chicago, a survey by hotel union Unite Here Local 1 found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers surveyed last year had been sexually harassed by a guest.

In Chicago, a survey by hotel union Unite Here Local 1 found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers surveyed last year had been sexually harassed by a guest.

There is no research in Miami Beach on the subject, but a survey by Unite Here Local 355, which represents about 200 housekeepers at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach and a handful of other hotels in Miami-Dade, is due for release before the ordinance is drafted.

If the survey finds a pervasive problem — and Rosen Gonzalez expects it will — she will move to develop an ordinance requiring hotels to offer panic buttons; failing to do so would cause denial of the business tax receipt needed to operate. (The Chicago ordinance calls instead for fines between $250 and $500 for each offense.)

The reason we want to do this is we really want to change behaviors. Once men know that our housekeepers have panic buttons, they are not going to do it.

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez

“The reason we want to do this is we really want to change behaviors,” Rosen Gonzalez said. “Once men know that our housekeepers have panic buttons, they are not going to [assault them]. I think this is the beginning of something very big.”

For the commissioner, the subject hits close to home. In late October, she alleged that earlier that month, Rafael Velasquez, a former Miami Beach City Commission candidate, exposed his penis to her in her car. Her allegation was followed by accusations by other women who said Velasquez acted inappropriately toward them.

Velasquez denied the allegations by Rosen Gonzalez, but went on to lose the commission race in November to Mark Samuelian.

Rosen Gonzalez kept quiet about the incident before she was spurred to speak out by the #MeToo movement, which encourages people to talk about their own encounters with sexual harassment.

“When I came out and tweeted it, I realized I was really bothered by it. It was some place in my subconscious really disturbing me,” she said.

Now she wants to give hotel workers a platform to speak out, too.

Behind hotel room doors

Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355, the county’s only hotel union, said she has “absolutely no doubt” that a survey of hotel workers in South Florida will yield results similar to those in Chicago.

“I had someone tell me a story just yesterday who is a server in a restaurant where the guest grabbed their hand in a public area and licked their hand and arm and did not get banned from the hotel. Housekeepers coming into a hotel room where a man is fully exposed is incredibly common. And of course these housekeepers are knocking on the door, announcing themselves,” Walsh said. “[I’ve heard] things that are far more serious where women are being sexually assaulted in the rooms.”

Housekeepers coming into a hotel room where a man is fully exposed is incredibly common.

Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355

Earlier this year, Fontainebleau hotel housekeeper Gerdine Verssagne told the Miami Herald that when a naked male guest entered a room she was cleaning and she reported the incident, the hotel doubted her story, checking first to see whether she was supposed to be working at the time.

Fontainebleau hotel housekeeper Odelie Paret can spend up to four hours getting to work on county buses. Her story is common in the Miami-Dade County hospitality world where high rents in the county have pushed workers farther away from their jobs

Walsh said the ordinance could alter what she calls a pervasive hotel practice of keeping incidents of sexual harassment quiet, with hotels often trying to solve them internally instead of seeking police involvement. The Seattle ordinance, for instance, requires that hotels keep a record of guests accused of sexual harassment.

“A lot of time these [acts are committed by] regular guests or VIPs. The same guest comes back the next day or month or year,” Walsh said. “So it tells the housekeeper that their experience is less important than the guest.”

Nationally, the American Hotel and Lodging Association has opposed the panic button measure, calling it a “fig leaf” for other regulations unions want to push, like higher minimum wages and caps on workloads.

Nationally, the American Hotel and Lodging Association has opposed the panic button measure, calling it a “fig leaf” for other regulations unions want to push, like higher minimum wages and caps on workloads, according to documents acquired by HuffPost. The association has developed a social media campaign platform to stop the spread of panic button proposals to other cities and “illustrate the underhanded union tactics being deployed.”

“The hotel and lodging industry has made and continues to make the safety of its employees and guests a top priority. We have incorporated safety standards on our properties, industry employees receive comprehensive and ongoing trainings, and AHLA has partnered with nationally recognized groups to develop tailored trainings. We will continue our focus on ensuring America’s hotels are secure places for those who work and visit,” American Hotel and Lodging Association spokeswoman Rosanna Maietta said in a statement.

Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said the association is not aware of the national group’s position and has only just begun to look into the subject of bringing panic buttons to Miami Beach. It has not reached a position on the buttons or determined the costs involved. As in other cities, Miami Beach’s ordinance would require hotels to pay for the devices.

Nevertheless, Kallergis said security is a “top priority” for local hotels and the association will keep monitoring the progress of the potential ordinance.

“If it’s something that [hotels] want to have and they believe they should have, they’ll do it,” Kallergis said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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