Tourism & Cruises

Did hotels inflate the price of panic buttons to try to delay a law protecting workers?

A new law arming hotel workers with panic buttons was supposed to go into effect on Aug. 1. Some hotels are asking for a delay.
A new law arming hotel workers with panic buttons was supposed to go into effect on Aug. 1. Some hotels are asking for a delay. GETTY IMAGES

In a bid to get Miami Beach to delay the deadline for installing panic buttons, a lobbyist for South Beach Group Hotels told commissioners last week that the technology would set the company back $250,000 to $500,000 per hotel. The company owns 16 hotels, according to its website.

“It’s not just the hardware that we’re giving the employee to carry around, but it is the impact that it has on the overall building and the overall structure,” said lobbyist Monika Entin.

But quotes from Miami-based panic button vendors show that the cost of the systems meant to protect hotel workers from sexual assault and harassment is actually much lower than the hotel company claimed. The estimates raise questions about the industry’s request to extend the Aug. 1, 2019, deadline mandated by ordinance. Local vendors said they have been in talks with hotels since the law was passed in July 2018.

Michael Sheridan, a vendor who sells a system called React Mobile, said he would charge $5,530 to outfit a 70-room hotel with location beacons and 12 panic buttons plus $241 a month for the software. That comes to less than $8,500 total for the first year. Sheridan said the system could be installed in one to two days.

“It’s a fraction of some of the numbers that were being tossed around at the hearing,” he said. Sheridan’s sales company, bloopie business solutions, uses in-room Bluetooth location beacons or existing hotel management software to summon security to a housekeeper who has pressed a button, which can be carried on a keychain or lanyard.

Sheridan said he’s visited dozens of Miami Beach hotels and sold his product to roughly a dozen. Some hotels told him that they didn’t plan to make a decision about which device to use until closer to the Aug. 1 deadline. The message, as he understood it, was “We are not spending the money until we absolutely need to.”

“My concern is that you give the extension for this financial consideration and you’re kicking the can down the road,” he said. “In six months or a year you’re going to be in the exact same spot.”

Security company Bunker360, which works with Amazon hardware and AT&T signals, offered hotels 50 percent off the system installation fee and free monthly service until the law takes effect in August 2019 if they signed up before December. National sales manager Ricky Medero said 20 safety buttons in a hotel with 100 rooms can cost $4,000 to $14,000 per year, depending on the hotel’s existing security system. Medero said at least five hotels have signed with him.

Another option from Miami-based vendor Einar Rosenberg with Creating Revolutions uses artificial intelligence to measure movement patterns and alert security to an emergency even if a hotel worker is unable to press the panic button provided. So far the Clevelander and Essex hotels have signed on, and Rosenberg said he is in talks with others. His system runs on an Android and Apple operating systems and goes for $2 per month per hotel room.

Mike Palma, the Executive Vice President of hotel operator Jesta, which runs the Clevelander and Essex hotels, said he is very happy with the tech so far.

“For the last two months it’s been very stable,” he said. “The staff likes it, the housekeepers feel safer. It’s a good tool.”

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The Dream South Beach Hotel is one of the hotels asking for a one-year delay to comply with a new Miami Beach law requiring hotels to give workers panic buttons. ARKASHA STEVENSON MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Hotels haven’t just complained about the cost of installing panic button systems. Another hotel, Dream South Beach, which is also pushing commissioners for a delay, previously said its IT team is stretched thin. “Sorting through everything has been a challenge to find the most economical option to comply,” said general manager Peggy Benua.

Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said hotels should be given more time to comply because of a shortage of panic buttons. None of the vendors interviewed by the Miami Herald said they were experiencing supply shortages. Kallergis did not respond to requests for comment. Neither South Beach Group Hotels nor their lobbyist responded to questions about what technology the company had been told would cost as much as $500,000 per building and why the company wasn’t able to use cheaper devices.

“They are safe, we are not.”

The panic button law was passed last July and requires hotels to provide a “safety button or notification device” to hotel and hostel housekeepers, room service servers, room attendants and minibar attendants. Hotels are also required to place a sign in each room notifying guests in 14-point type that employees are armed with panic buttons.

The ordinance doesn’t specify which devices hotels can use, instead allowing them to pick whichever system makes the most sense for their business. The law defines the panic button as a “portable emergency contact device” that can be “quickly and easily” activated to “effectively summon prompt assistance to the employee’s location.”

But the broad language appears to have given hotels room to buy systems that do not give security the exact location of a hotel worker in danger.

Wendi Walsh, the secretary-treasurer of the local Unite Here 355 hotel union, said the Fontainebleau Miami Beach resort — the largest hotel in Miami Beach — plans to use panic buttons that make loud noises when pressed but do not identify an exact location. The Fontainebleau declined to comment about the panic button system it plans to use.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on specific types of devices, but Chief Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner said that any safety button or notification device “that does not summon prompt assistance to the employee’s location” would not be in compliance with the ordinance. The City Attorney’s Office told Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán that a noisemaker could potentially comply with the ordinance depending on the size of the hotel.

Irasema Arrieta, 52, who has worked at the Fontainebleau for 20 years as a housekeeper, said she would prefer a device that does both — make a loud noise and alert security to an exact location. Over her long career at the hotel, Arrieta said she has been offered money in exchange for sex and been touched inappropriately by guests. According to a survey by Unite Here Local 355, 63 percent of the more than 70 Miami Beach hotel workers surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted or harassed while working in guest rooms.

Arrieta said she would feel devalued if the commission votes to delay the deadline for hotels to arm her and her colleagues with panic buttons.

“The panic button is on the table, why wait?” she said in Spanish. “If they passed the law, there’s a reason. There’s a need. If they wait a year it’s because they don’t care. They are safe, we are not.”

To show that they are complying with the new rules, hotels will be required to submit an affidavit stating that they’ve met the panic button requirements when they renew their annual business license. Violators will get a written warning for a first offense and can be fined between $500 and $2,000 for multiple offenses within a six-month period.

The Code Compliance department plans to enforce the new rules by conducting spot checks as well as by responding to complaints, city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said in an email.

Miami Beach hotels aren’t the only ones being asked to provide workers with panic buttons. Chicago passed a law requiring hotels to equip workers with panic buttons in July 2018. Sacramento and Long Beach, California, have passed similar ordinances. Panic button measures have become mainstays in hotel worker bargaining contracts in New York and Las Vegas.

Commissioners consider delay

After hearing from Miami Beach hotel and union representatives at the city’s May 8 commission meeting, elected officials said they needed more information about the available technology before deciding whether to grant an extension. They referred the discussion to the Neighborhood and Community Affairs Committee, which meets on May 20.

Commissioner Michael Góngora, who proposed the temporary reprieve, said he would be willing to shorten the extension to six months and limit it to small hotels. Other commissioners were skeptical that hotels needed another year to implement the ordinance or said they worried about the impact a delay would have on hotel workers.

“It’s the housekeepers, many of which I see here — it’s what they have to deal with from day to day and that is more important honestly than anything,” Alemán said at last week’s commission meeting. “I don’t know what I would say to myself if in this grace period something happened to one of them,” she said.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said he opposed a one-year delay but might be open to granting an extension to hotels that could prove they had a hardship if they implemented a temporary solution in the meantime. He said one temporary fix might be an air horn or similar noisemaking device.

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

“One year is too long for the vulnerable women who would be protected by this panic button ordinance,” Rosen Gonzalez said in a text message. If the commission votes in favor of a shorter extension, she said, she hopes “this is just six months to allow hoteliers to find the best products, and not some maneuver to reverse the ordinance.”

Asked whether a noisemaker would comply with the ordinance as a long-term solution, commissioners said they needed more information about specific devices.

“I’m not sure if a ‘noisemaker’ alone would be adequate,” Góngora said in an email. “As such, I see an opportunity in further discussing this ordinance to fine tune these questions as the ordinance is not crystal clear as to what is or is not required.” Góngora added that he would defer to the city attorney’s opinion.

Mayor Dan Gelber said that he’d need an expert evaluation to determine whether noisemakers comply with the ordinance. “It sounds like it may provide an additional level of protection and security, but I’d have to hear from an expert,” he said.

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Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.
Kyra Gurney lives in Miami Beach and covers the island for the Miami Herald. She attended Columbia University and Colorado College and grew up in New Mexico.
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