Cecilia was working as a minibar attendant at a Chicago hotel when she knocked on the guest’s door and announced herself. The man’s response was quick and unequivocal: “You can come in.”
When she opened the door, “He was at the computer, masturbating,” Cecilia recalled. She was overcome with shock and embarrassment. Judging from the satisfied look on the man’s face, that was the whole idea.
“I felt nasty,” recalled Cecilia, who asked that her last name and the hotel not be identified. “You’d expect that to happen to people in a jail but not in regular work. I felt like crying.”
It wasn’t the only time Cecilia had dealt with extreme forms of sexual harassment in her three decades working in downtown hotels. A male guest once answered her knock by opening the door naked. Just a month and a half ago, a younger colleague confided to Cecilia that a male guest had tried to embrace her while she was in his room. Cecilia escorted the shaken housekeeper to the hotel’s security team to report the incident.
Since the allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein were first revealed last month, more and more women have stepped forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault at work. Their bravery in speaking out has toppled powerful men’s careers in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington. But much less attention has been paid to the rampant harassment in blue-collar workplaces, particularly the hotel industry.
Many of the stories that have hit front pages ― Weinstein, journalist Mark Halperin, comedian Louis C.K. ― center on powerful men who preyed on underlings or colleagues in hotel rooms ― a trend that would surprise no woman who’s ever worked as a housekeeper. If famous A-list actresses must deal with unwanted advances in the privacy of a hotel suite, imagine the vulnerability of an immigrant woman cleaning the room alone, for close to minimum wage, plus tips.
“Frankly, I don’t think much of the public understands what housekeepers go through just to clean these rooms and carry out the work,” said Maria Elena Durazo, a labor leader with the hospitality union Unite Here.
For several years Durazo’s union has advocated for housekeepers to be given handheld, wireless panic buttons that can alert hotel security when a worker feels threatened ― a sign of how dire it views the problem of sexual predation in the hotel industry. After working to negotiate the use of panic buttons in their employer contracts, the union is now lobbying city councils to mandate them through legislation so that all workers have access to them, union and non-union alike.
But, according to Durazo, the panic buttons only go so far in addressing the more fundamental problem: an imbalance of economic power between perpetrators and their victims, especially when the victims are working in or near poverty. “We have to do something to equalize the power so that women really have the ability to speak up, without having to risk their livelihood,” she said. “That goes for whether you’re a housekeeper or a food server or a big-time actor.”
Last year, Unite Here surveyed roughly 500 of its Chicago area members who work in hotels and casinos as housekeepers and servers, many of them Latino and Asian immigrants. The results were disturbing:
- 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers said they had been sexually harassed by a guest.
- 49 percent of hotel workers said they had experienced a guest answering the door naked or otherwise exposing himself.
- 56 percent of hotel workers who’d reported harassment said they didn’t feel safe on the job afterward.
- 65 percent of casino cocktail servers said a guest had touched or tried to touch them without permission.
- Nearly 40 percent of casino workers said they’d been pressured for a date or a sexual favor.
Nereyda Soto, 25, was working in a hotel restaurant in Long Beach, Calif., two years ago when a guest’s attention over several days started to feel like stalking. The man repeatedly called Soto over to his table whenever he dined in the restaurant, asking her personal questions, such as whether she had a boyfriend. Relatively new to the job at the time, Soto didn’t feel comfortable telling a paying guest to buzz off.
When Soto came by his table to collect the man’s check one night, she found a hotel key card along with his payment. “He said, ‘I’d love to see how you look outside this uniform. You should meet me in my room.’”
Soto was mortified, but she didn’t tell her boss at the time.
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post, Dave Jamieson