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Hotels are arming workers with panic buttons to combat harassment

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By Seema Mody, CNBC

  • Hotel operators are working with the American Hotel and Lodging Association to address harassment and improve safety of hotel workers.
  • Workers will be given a portable safety device to alert security personnel if they feel they are in danger or a compromising position.

After countless complaints of hotel workers enduring sexual harassment, the industry is finally responding by introducing increased measures to better protect its employees, including a portable panic button.

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Thursday's announcement is the largest step taken by hotel operators to address harassment and improve safety, and is being made in conjunction with the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

The portable safety device helps employees alert security personnel if they feel they are in danger or a compromising position. Harassment of hotel workers — specifically housekeepers — has been a longstanding issue the industry has had a difficult time addressing. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns reignited the conversation around harassment inside hotel rooms and has forced industry leaders to find a more comprehensive solution.

The panic button will be rolled out nationwide by Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, among other hotel operators.

A number of cities including Chicago and Seattle have already deployed the panic button and have gone so far as to require hotels to provide their staff with the device due to ongoing complaints of harassment, ranging from guest nudity, groping, touching and forced contact.

"We are testing and deploying associate alert devices to enable hotel associates to press a button to summon help if they encounter a threatening situation," Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International in a press release.

"In addition to implementing anti-harassment and anti-trafficking training across all 5,400+ of our properties, we have already deployed employee safety devices in New York, Washington D.C., Seattle and Chicago properties," said Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton.

Unite Here, a labor union, which represents the rights of hospitality employees across the nation, has played a notable role in pushing hotels to adopt the panic button to better protect its workers.

"The panic buttons, or safety buttons, are useful in that they are a real-time lifeline for women who work alone. It can be used in the case of a sexual assault or harassment, and in other dangerous situations, like if a worker finds a guest who has highly dangerous or illegal materials in their hotel room," said Rachel Gumpert, national press secretary for Unite Here.

Unite Here says more than 50 percent of hotel housekeepers in Seattle have endured some type of sexual harassment.

U.S. hotels are aiming to implement the panic button at all properties by 2020. Given the different size and layouts of each hotel, the American Hotel and Lodging Association has organized a special task force to help hotels figure out the best technology and device to deploy.

Some devices will emit a loud noise, while others will have GPS capabilities.

In addition to the device, the major hotel operators are providing employees with ongoing training and education on reporting sexual harassment and ensuring anti-sexual harassment policies are in place in multiple languages. AHLA is also teaming up with Tina Tchen of Times Up Legal Defense Fund to improve workplace diversity.

"I applaud the hotel industry for taking the initiative and continuing to put employee safety first, recognizing that all people should feel safe while doing their jobs," said Tchen.

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