HTC was first – now the panic button idea is catching on

Our members and officers featured in BBC report

One of the occupational hazards that hotel workers in certain job classifications (especially in housekeeping and room service) face is the reality that their duties require them to enter isolated locked guest rooms by themselves, and that some hotel guests inside may have malevolent intentions.

Hotel housekeepers, the majority of whom are women, are especially vulnerable to assault and harassment while on duty. “When a room attendant is up on the floors, she is basically by herself” says HTC Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rich Maroko. “There is often a power imbalance between the hotel guest, who may be paying thousands of dollars a night for a luxury room, and the housekeeping staff who is thought of as invisible.”

In 2011, after a member of our union was sexually assaulted by a hotel guest and then outrageously and falsely accused of prostitution by that same perpetrator, the President of HTC, Peter Ward, had an audacious idea to make a sweeping change to the security infrastructure in every unionized hotel in New York City, in order to dramatically reduce the threat to our members. His idea was to demand in the union’s 2012 contract negotiations with the industry that every hotel be required to install a “panic button” system which would enable an employee to summon security to her or his location immediately, anywhere in the building.

This was a bold and original initiative by our union. There were no other hotels in the world where such a panic button system was operating. To our knowledge, no service industry had even contemplated anything comparable. Furthermore, the plan would be very expensive to implement, and therefore would be resisted by the employers. This, in turn, could easily pose a major difficulty in making a deal in the very high stakes negotiations for our New York City industry-wide hotel contract, vital to the livelihood of about 25,000 HTC members and another 65,000 of their dependents. To accomplish this goal, it was necessary to persuade our entire membership, including those members who worked in jobs that don’t constantly situate them alone in guest rooms (cooks, maintenance workers, servers, bussers, front desk, front service, etc.) to support the demand and be willing, if necessary, to strike for it.

That’s what we did, and as always, HTC’s members responded with solidarity. As a result, our union was able to persuade the employers to agree to this ground-breaking contract provision in 2012 and today,  panic button systems have been installed throughout the city, providing an electronic shield for room attendants and other workers who travel to guests’ rooms. However, just winning the contract language for panic buttons was not enough, just as a law prohibiting an unsafe work environment is not enough. Enforcing the law, or contract, is equally important to ensure the safety of workers. HTC has always made it a priority to ensure the safety of its members, and this was no exception. HTC created a task force of Health and Safety experts, legal staff, organizers and business agents to make sure hotels have properly installed panic button systems and implemented safety protocols in the event the are utilized by an employee.

Furthermore, following our union’s lead, panic button systems are being implemented in other hotels around the country. Hotel chains Marriott, Hilton, Wyndam Hotels and Resorts, and Intercontinental are rolling out new panic buttons nationwide.  The city of Chicago recently enacted a law requiring them in all hotels in that jurisdiction.

In this recent special by BBC News, HTC members Ha Chhao Yi and Stefanie Schultz paint a vivid picture of the risks that room attendants can face while cleaning guest rooms. Stories like theirs, which are unfortunately far too common, are the reason why our union fought for panic buttons, far before it was an industry standard. HTC Vice President Rich Maroko, and Director of Organizing Julia Rybak are interviewed in the video.

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