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Service workers face more harassment than ever. Panic buttons can help.

Sounding the alarm on what used to be “just part of the job.”

By Stav Dimitropoulos

Five years ago, Latonia, a housekeeper at a chain hotel in downtown Chicago, knocked three times at the door of a room on her assigned floor and was met with silence. When she entered, she came face-to-face with a middle-aged man, naked, standing in the middle of the room and staring at her. Latonia ran downstairs to her manager, who looked into the system to check the status of the unclothed guest, then told her not to go to that room again. “It turns out he was some kind of Platinum- or Titanium-tier member,” recalls Latonia, 41. The man suffered no repercussions.

And he wasn’t the only one. Throughout the 17 years Latonia has worked in the hospitality industry, she has encountered several guests who deliberately exposed themselves to her, and she’s heard about other workers who were flashed and even cornered. So she and her colleagues welcomed Chicago’s Hotel Workers Sexual Harassment Ordinance, which went into effect in 2018. It requires all hotels in the city to provide “panic buttons” for hotel housekeeping staff assigned to work alone.

A panic button is a wireless transmitter that feeds off Bluetooth technology. These aren’t the huge, red buttons of popular imagination; latest-generation panic buttons are so tiny, users can hide one inside a pocket or apron, wear it on a lanyard, or even disguise it as a necklace or bracelet. A typical device looks like a remote key fob with a button in the center — which, once pressed, can identify the worker’s location so hotel staff can come to the rescue.

The pandemic has made these potential encounters less common; many hotels have suspended daily room cleanings, either as a COVID-19 safety measure or a cost-saving move (or both). But panic buttons have since become common in fields where frontline workers can encounter an unruly public, from hospitals and elder care facilities to gas stations and convenience stores. In September, a hospital in Branson, Missouri, issued panic buttons to employees who work in its emergency room and inpatient rooms, citing increased assaults during COVID-19 surges.

“It was the best thing that has ever happened to me and my co-workers. People outside the hospitality industry don’t realize how scary our job actually is.”

Latonia, 41, a Chicago hotel worker

And in the hospitality field, the rise of panic buttons has highlighted the troubling dynamics in an industry filled with vulnerable female workers — and the way a simple device can give them new power.

“I get the panic button first thing in the morning, and if anything happens to me, it goes to my general manager. It goes to security,” says Latonia (who, because of the nature of her experiences at the hotel, asked to use only her first name for this story). “It was the best thing that has ever happened to me and my co-workers,” she continues. “People outside the hospitality industry don’t realize how scary our job actually is.”

The phrase “panic button” was likely invented by U.S. bomber pilots in World War II, a reference to the bombers’ emergency bell systems for signaling the crew to abandon a damaged plane. For the hotel industry, where workforce turnover and retention hinge on employee safety, the technology is filling what many have declared a shocking, pressing need.

In Chicago in 2016, 58% of housekeepers reported that they had experienced some type of sexual harassment on the job, and 49% had seen a guest expose themselves, according to a 2016 survey of 500 hospitality workers by labor union Unite Here. Even before the #MeToo era, those statistics had prompted activism, legislation, and a hunt for a technological solution.

Then came the launch of the #MeToo movement in fall 2017, which made hotel housekeepers more comfortable coming forward to talk to lawmakers and the media. The American Hotel and Lodging Association announced a voluntary commitment in 2018 to introduce panic buttons as part of a broader anti-harassment program. Several major U.S. hotel brands have pledged to use the devices.

Yasmine Mustafa, a former hotel worker who founded the company ROAR for Good in 2014 to sell panic buttons for women’s safety, pivoted in 2019 to focus on the hospitality industry. She says she has scrambled to meet the increasing demand. Since December 2020, nearly 1,000 U.S.-based hotels have contacted Mustafa’s business through the company website.

“They have been adopted pretty well by a lot of major hotel chains,” says Kimberly A. Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Previously, hotel employees had to use mobile phones to protect themselves. “In case you were attacked, you had to take out your phone and contact the manager, which was very nerve-racking,” Eddleston says. By comparison, panic buttons “are very easy to use,” she says, “and not only as a means of combating harassment, but for medical emergencies as well. For example, they may be particularly helpful in big resorts in case somebody has a heart attack.”

In Chicago, Unite Here Local 1 and the Chicago Federation of Labor led an effort to pass the panic button legislation, which it dubbed the “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance, as women like Latonia shared their stories and organized their co-workers. Chicago was the second city in the U.S., after Seattle, to pass hotel panic button legislation. Other U.S. cities have followed, and Washington state, New Jersey, and Illinois have passed statewide laws.

“Before starting those surveys, we didn’t really feel there was anything wrong with what was happening to us; it was part of the job,” says Latonia. The survey, she says, forced the hospitality industry to wake up to the problem.

What is it about a hotel setting that can breed such a toxic atmosphere? Martha F. Davis, a law professor at Northeastern University, says the power dynamics inside hotels — where often-high-paying guests interact with low-paid staff — could be a setup for harassment. Eddleston says some guests could form a seriously wrong impression from the friendliness of the hospitality staffers, who have been trained to wear their best smiles and make their customers feel special and loved. Maybe the visitors in question have Jekyll and Hyde-type split personalities, Eddleston continues — perfect gentlemen out in the open, potential sexual predators where alcohol, bedrooms, and confined spaces abound.

Smart devices like panic buttons can help protect hotel workers from those toxic dynamics, Davis says. She is more skeptical about what follows the press of the button. “Workers need to feel safe that they can use the panic button without any negative repercussions,” Davis says, “and the employer must show that they take the matter seriously and respond by not retaliating against the person who pressed the button.” She thinks that a housekeeping worker who is nervous and pushes the button frequently might end up on the boss’s “least-desirable-employees list,” which might deter other workers from using the technology. “There should have to be some kind of insurance that workers could push the button without suffering repercussions,” Davis says. (The Chicago and Seattle panic-button ordinances prohibit hotels from retaliating against employees for using their panic buttons.)

At the same time, Eddleston warns, panic buttons should not be used indiscriminately. “You have to train your employees what an emergency is and what an emergency is not,” she says. She doesn’t think, for instance, that panic buttons should be used to report other transgressions, such as guests who don’t don masks where they are supposed to. “This should not be the panic button’s objective,” Eddleston says. Each time the transmitter goes to management, it takes up valuable and finite resources. And there’s a danger of crying wolf, she says: In a huge resort with dozens of panic buttons, overuse runs the risk of missing a real emergency.

Meanwhile, at the Chicago hotel where Latonia works, the atmosphere has drastically changed since July 2018. Hotel managers train their workers on the use of panic buttons. A problem that was the industry’s dirty secret is now out in the open. Latonia says her panic button makes her feel safe to go to work: “The creepy guests, as we call them, will now have to think twice about exposing themselves to us.”

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.

 

Illustration by Fernando Cobelo

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