Tourism & Cruises

Miami Beach hotels seek yearlong delay to arm housekeepers with panic buttons

The Dream South Beach Hotel is advocating for a one-year delay to Miami Beach’s panic button ordinance. The ordinance, passed in July 2018, requires hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers by Aug. 1, 2019.
The Dream South Beach Hotel is advocating for a one-year delay to Miami Beach’s panic button ordinance. The ordinance, passed in July 2018, requires hotels to provide panic buttons to housekeepers by Aug. 1, 2019. Miami Herald Staff

In July 2018 the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously passed a law requiring hotels to arm housekeepers with panic buttons to protect against sexual harassment and assault by Aug. 1, 2019. Now some Miami Beach hotels are asking the commission to delay the ordinance by a year.

Commissioner Michael Góngora introduced a proposal Wednesday that would delay implementation until Aug. 1, 2020. Góngora said he had been contacted by the Dream South Beach hotel on Collins Avenue and 11th Street, and the South Beach Group Hotels, which owns 16 Miami Beach hotels, with their concerns about meeting the 2019 deadline.

At a commission meeting Wednesday Góngora said he would be willing to shorten the extension to six months and limit it to small hotels, “but I do want to help our hospitality industry and make sure they have time to fiscally comply with this item.”

With the Aug. 1 deadline on the horizon, the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association held a meeting on April 23 with hotel representatives and panic button vendors. A few days before the meeting, Wendy Kallergis, president of the GMBHA, heard from Góngora’s office that he planned to advocate for delaying the deadline.

“I think the year came quickly,” Kallergis said. “The truth is that [the hotels] are all dedicated, committed to doing it. It’s not an inexpensive item for the budget. My sense is that additional time would benefit our hotels.” On Tuesday, Kallergis sent a letter to City Manager Jimmy Morales supporting the delay.

Peggy Benua, general manager of the 107-room Dream South Beach hotel, said she approached Góngora about her concerns after the April 23 meeting. Her hotel has not contracted a panic button vendor yet.

“The issue is that there’s so many vendors and so many options,” she said. “Sorting through everything has been a challenge to find the most economical option to comply.”

Monika Entin, a lobbyist representing South Beach Group Hotels, told commissioners Wednesday that the company anticipated having to spend between $250,000 and $500,000 at each of its hotels on the island. She said that Miami Beach hotels have struggled in recent years due to Hurricane Irma, a 2016 Zika virus outbreak, and the temporary closure of the Miami Beach Convention Center as it was undergoing renovations. The panic buttons, she argued, posed an additional financial burden.

“When you have a smaller business and when you have smaller hotels the impact can be great,” Entin said.

Miami Beach’s largest hotel, the Fontainebleau resort, has already purchased the necessary equipment and will comply with the Aug. 1 deadline.

“Fontainebleau is fully prepared for when the ordinance goes into effect,” said Silvia Pereda, vice president of human resources at the Fontainebleau, in a statement.

Miami’s hotel union — Unite Here Local 355 — is opposed to the delay. Gabriela Noa Betancourt, a representative of the union, told the commission Wednesday that hotels were given a year to prepare for the new law.

“To implement an additional delay is really a tragedy and a national embarrassment for the city of Miami Beach,” Betancourt said. “We’re talking here about some of the most vulnerable workers in our city and we should really ask the companies and ourselves what is the value of the safety of these women.”

A hotel housekeeper who identified herself only as Marta also urged elected officials not to delay.

“You don’t want to hear all of the stories I’ve heard over the years, stories of harassment, rape and violence that occur in the rooms we clean,” she said in Spanish.

The original deadline in the draft of the panic button ordinance was Jan. 1, 2019, but the final version pushed the deadline to Aug. 1. The ordinance includes financial penalties for hotels that don’t comply.

Commissioners said they were concerned about the impact a delay might have on hotel workers.

“We passed this legislation to protect them or to at least play a role in protecting them,” said Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán. “I don’t know what I would say to myself if in this grace period something happened to one of them,” she added.

The City Commission ultimately decided not to vote on the extension and referred it to a committee. Commissioners said they wanted more information about the challenges hotels are facing and the technologies that have been used in other cities.

Former Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who championed the panic button law, said she opposed any delays.

“One year is too long for the vulnerable women who would be protected by this panic button ordinance,” she said in a text message.

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