Hotel workers face high rates of sexual assault and harassment on the job, with over half of hotel staff in Oakland saying a guest has flashed them or opened the door naked.
Oakland’s Measure Z provides a potential solution: handheld emergency devices called Panic Buttons. But opponents say other parts of the measure would harm the industry as a whole.
It’s almost noon and Blanca Smith has just wrapped up a shift at the Hilton Hotel by the Oakland airport. She works at the buffet and in room service, delivering meals to guests. She started working at 4am. But oddly enough, back at her home in San Leandro, she says she’s not tired at all.
“I’m just really relaxed and excited to take my uniform off,” Blanca says in Spanish.
Even after the night shift hustle, the first thing Blanca wants to do when she gets home is make lunch for her 41-year-old daughter.
“Even if she’s one hundred years old she’ll always be my little girl,” Blanca laughs.
Nudity and harassment in the hotel room
Blanca, who is active with her union, started working at the Hilton after she moved to California from Mexico twenty-two years ago. Part of her job is to bring food and alcohol to guests’ rooms. After all these years, the guests still make her feel nervous. When they open the door, she never knows what she’ll find.
The guests “open the door naked or they have their robes open,” says Blanca.
A few weeks ago, Blanca says she walked in on a man massaging a woman’s back in the hotel room. The man turned to Blanca, and asked her to join him.
He told her, “‘Don’t you want to do it too? From top to bottom, start with your tongue. Come on, give her a massage,’” says Blanca. Another man in the room kept trying to touch her. She pushed him away and ran off.
“It makes me feel like, is this something I put myself into? Why do I keep doing this to myself?” says Blanca. “But in the end I say no, I am just here to work, and I am not doing this to myself.”
Oakland’s Measure Z
If Blanca had a panic button in that moment, she says she would have pressed it. Now she hopes an Oakland ballot measure will get her one. Measure Z would provide panic buttons to the city’s hotel staff who work alone in guest rooms or bathrooms.
“That’s why we’re here,” Blanca says. “This gives me so much pain, to the point where I don’t know if I want to keep working, but I do it.”
The measure would also raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for staff at hotels with more than 50 rooms. But Blanca says that for her, the most important part of the measure is protection from sexual harassment.
Measure Z doesn’t say exactly what the emergency devices would look like. But in other cities that use them, they look like panic alarms for cars — the kind people carry around on keychains to scare off burglars. But these devices can alert security without making a noise.
A movement older than #MeToo
Rachel Gumpert, a spokesperson for the hotel and hospitality workers' union Unite Here, says issues like low wages and harassment are connected.
“It’s often women of color who are in a position of being more marginalized than the wealthy guests who come and stay at the hotels,” says Gumpert. “And you also have a training culture in place where the hotel workers are taught to be extremely deferential to these men.”
The effort to change that culture and keep hotel staff safe kicked off years before the #MeToo Movement. Panic buttons were provided to hotel workers for the first time in New York City in 2013. That was shortly after a hotel maid in the city accused the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of attempted rape.
Now other cities require panic buttons, including Seattle, Chicago, and Sacramento.
But here in California, a statewide bill requiring panic buttons for hotels just failed.
John Caldwell with the California Hotel and Lodging Association spoke against the bill during a hearing earlier this year. He said the problem with the bill went beyond just panic buttons. The bill required each city to come up with its own anti-harassment standards for hotels and Caldwell said that would create a costly patchwork of rules.
“So we pass this bill, and every hotel, every motel, every bed and breakfast, goes out and spends millions of dollars for these panic buttons, and then a couple of weeks later, or a couple of months later, a city passes an ordinance that’s different. There’s no predictability at all,” Caldwell told the legislature.
Even though the statewide measure failed, cities like Oakland are taking the issue locally to voters. Next week, the city of Long Beach is voting on a similar measure.
Minimum wage hikes and a stalled hotel industry
Mark Everton, the CEO of Visit Oakland, a tourism and marketing arm for the city, says Oakland’s Measure Z would make it hard for hotels to open in the city. Fewer hotels, Everson says, means less tax revenue and fewer jobs.
“You're really kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face in that you’re generating some benefits on one side but you're losing an opportunity, a great opportunity, on the other side, which is the additional tax revenue,” says Everton.
Everton says because of high operating costs in Oakland, it’s already difficult for hotels to set up shop in the city. No new hotel has been built in Downtown Oakland in almost two decades. But he says there’s also a growing demand for hotels as the city’s tourism industry booms dramatically.
“We have a limited number of hotel rooms and so there is a need for us to build more hotel rooms,” says Everton. “Measure Z will have a very detrimental effect on the decision by developers to develop hotels in Oakland.”
Everton also says the measure puts non-union hotels at a disadvantage. It allows workers in unions to negotiate with hotels and opt out of the minimum wage requirement.
“Measure Z is not a level playing field,” says Everton.. “It’s not equitable across the board. We think it's unfair that the four largest hotels that are represented by the union currently aren't held to the same standard that all of the non-union hotels are.”
“Right now they don’t believe us”
Hotel worker Blanca Smith believes Measure Z will benefit everyone. On a recent afternoon, she marched outside the Marriott in Downtown Oakland. She doesn’t even work here. She’s a union rep at the Hilton, and she joined this picket line in solidarity
Blanca says the wage increase offered in Measure Z would help her. But what she really wants is to be heard. She says that in the past, hotel managers have told her to just shut her eyes when guests flash her.
Management “will have to protect us, all of us,” says Blanca. “Because like I’ve said, the most important thing is that they believe us. Because right now they don’t believe us.”
Blanca wants to leave her job knowing that women who enter the hotel industry feel safe.
“I want to retire young,” she laughs. “This is for everyone else. It’s for the legacy of women who come after me.”
Labor groups have spent over half a million dollars to support the measure. Opposition groups haven’t spent a dime.
Voters will make the final decision on Measure Z during next Tuesday’s election In Oakland
JoAnn DeLuna translated Blanca Smith during interviews for this piece. Cynthia Morfin also assisted with translation.