Miami Beach is fighting sexual assault. Now hotel housekeepers will get panic buttons

Unite Here Local 1 housekeeper, Latonia, who works in a Chicago hotel and asked to be called by her first name only, holds a panic button after the city of Chicago mandated that all hotels provide their housekeepers with the devices. The ordinance helped pave the way for Miami Beach’s panic button regulations.
Unite Here Local 1 housekeeper, Latonia, who works in a Chicago hotel and asked to be called by her first name only, holds a panic button after the city of Chicago mandated that all hotels provide their housekeepers with the devices. The ordinance helped pave the way for Miami Beach’s panic button regulations. Unite Here Local 1

Beginning next year, Miami Beach’s hotel housekeepers will be armed.

Their weapon, panic buttons, will help combat sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, a problem that is being more widely discussed and addressed following the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Beginning Aug. 1, 2019, Miami Beach will be the third tourism town, after Seattle and Chicago, to mandate that hotels provide the devices. The Beach is calling them “safety buttons.”

The Miami Beach City Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to arm workers with panic buttons after Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez proposed the measure late last year, following her own alleged assault. According to Rosen Gonzalez, former Miami Beach City Commission candidate Rafael Velasquez exposed his penis to her in her car.

“This is about changing inappropriate behavior in hospitality and it’s mostly men, I hate to say it. But guests have gotten away with this behavior for way too long,” Rosen Gonzalez said in an interview.

An estimated 11,500 housekeepers are employed in Miami-Dade County, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a majority of them work in Miami Beach, the nexus of the region’s $25 billion tourism industry. According to a recent survey by hotel union Unite Here Local 355, 63 percent of the more than 70 Miami Beach hotel workers surveyed said they have been sexually assaulted or harassed while working in guest rooms.

Under the new regulations, Miami Beach will require that all hotels and hostels provide room attendants, housekeeping attendants, minibar attendants and room service servers with a “safety” button or notification device. Employees can use the devices if they feel there is an “ongoing crime, harassment, or other emergency in the employee’s presence.”

Still, the kind of device a hotel purchases is up to the individual property, the city said. The cost could range from a $3 or $4 for an app, to $100 per room as part of a hotel-wide security system as they do in Chicago hotels, which started providing the devices on July 1. Miami Beach does include one requirement, which the local union has pushed for: The devices must be sophisticated enough to summon security when a worker presses the button.

Miami Beach hotels are also required to place a sign inside each hotel room notifying guests that employees are equipped with panic buttons. During the annual renewal of their business tax receipts, hotels will have to file an affidavit affirming they are in compliance with the panic button ordinance. If a property is found in violation of any of the requirements, a first offense elicits a written warning, followed by fines of $500, $1,000 and $2,000 for each subsequent violation within a six-month period.

The hotels’ compliance with the ordinance will give workers renewed piece of mind, Rosen Gonzalez said.

“When you show this level of respect for employees you are going to get it back in so many non-tangible, non-financial ways,” she said. “...That’s going to go a long way.”

The regulations are by no means the most stringent in the nation. In Chicago, the panic button ordinance specifies that the button has to be sophisticated enough to contact hotel security, and outlines other worker protections, including allowing employees to be reassigned to a different area of the hotel to avoid the offending guest. In Seattle, where the law was first introduced, hotels have to keep a record of guests accused of sexual harassment.

Early discussions of the Miami Beach ordinance included a requirement that guests who were found sexually harassing or assaulting workers be banned for a year from the lodging, but that provision was struck from the final version. The implementation date for the panic buttons was also was moved from January 2019 to August 2019 to give hotels a year to prepare.

Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said the group is supportive of the final language in the ordinance. At the commission meeting Wednesday, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, the largest on the beach, also supported the regulations.

“We have a diverse mix of hotels in Miami Beach that include large corporate chains, limited service brands, boutiques and independent hotels...We will work closely with all of our hotels throughout the process,” Kallergis wrote in an email.

She added that the association’s hotel partners would “prefer to design and implement safety programs ourselves,” but that safety is a top priority and they believe the Beach has a “good ordinance in place.”

The Miami Beach City Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to arm workers with panic buttons beginning Aug. 1, 2019. Hotels will be required to provide their housekeepers with the devices at no cost. J. Albert Diaz Miami Herald Staff

Some hotels believe the new regulations are not required considering the safety protocols already followed by local hotels.

“We don’t believe that the addition of safety devices is necessary,” said Peggy Benua, general manager of the Dream South Beach hotel on Collins Avenue, adding that the hotel will nevertheless comply with the new rules. “In my 28-plus year career, I have personally not had a reported sexual assault in any hotel in which I have worked. That does not mean that it doesn’t happen and that it is not a serious matter.”

The 107-room hotel has not yet determined how it will absorb the added costs of the buttons. Benua said Dream South Beach plans to look at devices used by its sister properties in New York, where some unionized hotels already provide panic buttons.

For the hotel union, the new rules are a win despite some toned-down language, said Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355.

“This is definitely a significantly watered down version of the first attempt, [but] I think the most important thing is to get something started in Miami Beach,” Walsh said. “We are going to celebrate this as a real victory. It’s a very important thing that the commissioners are doing to acknowledge that this kind of behavior happens in hotels.”

Miami Beach Resort housekeeper Onelia Broche said the buttons will be a welcome addition that could potentially help lessen the frequency of sexual harassment or assault on the job.

Broche said she has had several moments of fear while at work, including one instance when a male guest entered a room she was servicing unannounced and approached her from behind while she was tidying the bed. She was able to run out before the incident escalated, she said.

“You can scream but in the end you are in a room — Who is going to hear you?” Broche said. “When I told that story people said, ‘That is nothing.’”

Many of Broche’s coworkers have had similar experiences, she said. Some have encountered naked guests in rooms or guests who have suggestively invited housekeepers into the rooms. Broche and many of her coworkers, who are represented by the hotel union, have been anxious to see the panic buttons put in place, she said.

“Everything is changing and we have to adjust to the new changes,” she said. “As housekeepers, we want to see [technological] developments reach our profession as well.”

The movement against sexual harassment in hotels has been spreading rapidly. New York City hotels that are unionized have had the panic buttons since 2013. Seattle’s law, the first that mandated the practice city-wide, has been in the books since 2016.

In Chicago, hotel workers have been armed with panic buttons since July 1, when the ordinance went into effect. The Unite Here local in Chicago, Local 1, led a highly-publicized push to enact panic buttons called “Hands Off Pants On.” The union found that 58 percent of 500 workers surveyed had been sexually harassed by a guest and 49 percent housekeepers surveyed had a guest who exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked.

“Women now have the panic buttons in their hands and we are confident that the city is taking it seriously and we are going to be continuing to train our members to make sure that they know their rights and are continuing to spread the word,” said Sarah Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Chicago union.

The Chicago campaign was the model for the Miami Beach ordinance. A proposed statewide bill is also in the works in California and the devices have been included as part of the new union contracts with Las Vegas’ MGM and Caesars casinos.

In Miami Beach, often portrayed as a place for tourists to lower their inhibitions, the measure is expected to ease the burden on its substantial tourism workforce, Walsh said.

“These are strong women,” she said, “that given the right tools will protect themselves and they need to know that they have rights that they can exercise.”

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH