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Hospitality Workers And Sexual Harassment


Housekeepers in Chicago will get a tool to protect themselves from sexual harassment on the job, a panic button. The city recently passed a new ordinance that requires hotels to give those devices to housekeepers and other staff who might work alone in a hotel room and find themselves in trouble. It's part of a series of measures to try to protect hospitality workers from sexual harassment. Karen Kent joins us. She's president of the Chicago chapter of the hospitality union UNITE HERE. Ms. Kent, thanks so much for being with us.

KAREN KENT: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And are hospitality workers especially vulnerable?

KENT: Absolutely. If you think about hospitality, our mission is to welcome people to the city and make them feel at home. Hotel housekeepers work alone, cleaning rooms. And oftentimes, there's a power imbalance between the women who clean them, who are often women of color, immigrants, and guests who have those rooms who pay hundreds of dollars a night. If something happens with the guests, they often can't be heard or possibly can't even get away.

SIMON: And this is just not theoretical. You surveyed your union's membership last year, didn't you? And I found those findings astonishing.

KENT: That's right. Forty-nine percent of the hotel housekeepers that we surveyed said that they had found a guest naked or had answered the door naked or exposed themselves while they were cleaning the room. Sixty-three percent of the folks who we surveyed said they had experienced an incident of sexual harassment on the job. I was frankly ashamed that I hadn't realized the extent of the problem.

SIMON: Yeah. And you were a waitress yourself for a number of years, weren't you?

KENT: I was. I was a waitress before I began working for the union. And I'd experienced my own examples of sexual harassment on the job. I told my team about an incident that had happened more than 20 years ago when I was a waitress. And it was the first time that I had ever spoken to anyone about it. And I just understood how difficult it is to share stories like that. And if I'm not prepared to talk about it, then I can't expect that our members will be prepared to talk about it.

SIMON: Yeah. How will the panic buttons work?

KENT: The panic buttons will allow housekeepers to call security wirelessly and report that they need assistance. Many of the places that people work - if you imagine you're in the city of Chicago, some of those hotels are a city block long. And if you try to call for assistance, someone would not hear you, particularly if you're in the room, behind closed doors.

SIMON: And it must be said a number of people who do that work often have uncertain English skills, too, don't they?

KENT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's people who are immigrants, and English is the second language. And, yeah, it's a scary situation I think. And also, not everybody has an immediate instinct to believe you. There's a great deal of shame and doubt that goes along with reporting this.

SIMON: Ms. Kent, service workers, hospitality workers in hotels do so much for other people - and often unseen. What else can be done to protect them?

KENT: Well, women that report will get paid time off to go report. There's no retaliation allowed under the ordinance. So that'll also provide more protection. I think that there's a shift in the collective consciousness of Chicago. And that's important in helping change the conversation. It's not just what we say or put on paper. But it's actually how we behave and the way that we treat one another and listen to one another.

SIMON: Karen Kent, president of UNITE HERE - local one in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

KENT: Thank you.