Panic rooms: Sacramento County adopts first protections in the state for hospitality workers

Hotel workers to receive devices that alert management of sexual misconduct

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the February 15, 2018, issue.

After hearing disturbing accounts of sexual harassment from the female hotel workers who survived them, Sacramento County leaders last week adopted the first protections in the state for this vulnerable profession.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the Sacramento County Hotel Worker Protection Act on February 6, following multiple stories detailing harassment, some going as far back as 20 years. Speaking through a translator, hotel worker Julia Gonzales told supervisors of an encounter on the job that left her shaken.

“I knocked on the door and asked for the guest,” Gonzales recalled. “He told me to come in and just clean the bathroom. He got close to me when I was picking up the towels, and when I looked he was naked.”

Gonzales said she dropped her things and fled the room immediately.

Sacramento County’s new ordinance—set to take effect February 27—will require hotels with at least 25 rooms to arm hotel and motel employees with a portable panic button or notification device to immediately alert security of inappropriate activity. In addition to the devices, subject lodgings are required to develop, maintain and comply with a written sexual harassment policy.

As drafted, the new protections will apply to approximately 24 of the 32 hotels in the unincorporated county.

The hospitality industry has played a central role in the Me Too movement, starting with disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose multidecade run of unwanted sexual advances and assaults often took place in high-end hotel rooms. On the same day that Sacramento County adopted its hotel worker protections, Steve Wynn resigned as CEO and chairman of Wynn Resorts amid sexual harassment allegations that also reportedly spanned decades at his Las Vegas hotel empire.

District 4 Supervisor Sue Frost was the lone vote against the ordinance. Although supportive of the concept, she insisted the county should defer until California lawmakers establish a framework at the state level, which might happen through Assembly Bill 1761, introduced last month. If passed, California would become the first state in the nation to institute a hotel panic-button law.

Frost also expressed her discomfort with singling out one industry.

“All of our employees should be protected,” Frost said. “I just think we haven’t done enough research and that there’s stuff going on at a much higher level that will actually filter down to all of us that we should wait and see how things are going at the state level so that we can all go under one regulation.”

The county documented approximately 144 sexual harassment cases last year. Of the nine that occurred on hotel properties, zero involved hotel staff.

“This is an area in which reporting statistics are about as inaccurate as you could probably get,” said District 2 Supervisor Patrick Kennedy. “We would be foolish and irresponsible to assume that that means it’s not taking place.”

District 1 Supervisor Phil Serna—who had hoped to bring this ordinance forward as early as last year—cited the city of Chicago, which adopted similar protections after a survey of female housekeepers uncovered rampant misconduct.

“Fifty-eight percent of women surveyed had been sexually harassed or assaulted,” Serna said. “Forty-two percent had experienced being exposed to by a guest.”

The ordinance found another supporter in the mayor of Sacramento. In a letter addressed to Serna, Mayor Darrell Steinberg expressed his “full support” of the ordinance and acknowledged his intent to enact similar protections within city limits.

“Hotel housekeepers are among the most vulnerable employees subjected to sexual harassment and assault,” Steinberg’s letter stated. “And we as locally elected representatives have an obligation to protect them.”