Throughout the #MeToo movement, the voices heard the loudest have so far been those of actresses, politicians and journalists.
But in Chicago, a new law recognises that it’s not just the rich and famous who face fear and risk of assault and harassment at work.
“Sexual harassment is not just a single-industry thing: it impacts women across sectors from the boardroom to the hotel room,” said Kate LeFurgy, Chief External Relations Officer at the Office of Chicago’s City Clerk.
“Sexual harassment impacts women from the boardroom to the hotel room”
The new ordinance requires hotels to give employees who work alone in rooms a wireless panic button that they can use to call for help from management or security. It gives workers the explicit right to stop working, leave the immediate area where the danger is perceived, and to be assigned to a different floor of the building.
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A 2016 union survey on sexual harassment and assault among 500 hospitality workers in the Chicago area found that a striking 58% of hotel workers had experienced unwanted behaviour from guests, including flashing, groping, or sexual coercion.
And between 2005 and 2015, workers in accommodation and food services filed more sexual harassment charges with the US federal government than any other industry.
“It’s all about power dynamics”
“While I don’t know the scientific answer to why that is, there is a clear inherent power imbalance between a man who can pay hundreds of dollars to stay in a hotel room and the woman who then comes in and cleans the room,” said LeFurgy. “As we hear across a lot of industries where this is happening, it’s all about power dynamics.”
Particular aspects of housekeeping work generate extra safety risks: employees work in closed spaces and away from video camera surveillance. Many women in low-wage jobs face very high risks in reporting harassment, including a fear of not being believed or losing a job they desperately need. And high rates of abuse can be exacerbated by race, income, and immigration status.
“If you look at the numbers, the majority of hotel workers are black and brown women. And one thing I think that gets lost in the sexual harassment debate is the impact that it has on these communities, which are often not talked about,” said LeFurgy.
“What the men are doing is inherently wrong and it’s really unfortunate that we have to pass an ordinance like this in the first place”
Employers are also required to develop, make public, and comply with a written anti-sexual harassment policy that must describe the procedure that will be followed if a worker reports harassment. And, finally, the new legislation prohibits hotels from retaliating against the hotel worker.
“What the men are doing is inherently wrong and it’s really unfortunate that we have to pass an ordinance like this in the first place. But what it does is create a system of reporting where there’s recourse and there’s something that women can do – push a panic button when they feel that they’re unsafe. Before, they didn’t have any of those resources,” said LeFurgy.
Seattle was the first city before Chicago to require hotels to provide panic buttons. The 30,000 workers of the New York Hotel Trades Council Union also got them in the wake of the highly publicised assault accusations against French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011. Hotels in Chicago are required to implement the new policies by this summer 2018.
“I think there’s been a lot of really positive reaction”
While there are reports that in Seattle the bill faced opposition from the hotel lobby, in Chicago – so far, at least – there has not been notable resistance. “I think there’s been a lot of really positive reaction to this. People have been extremely supportive. That comes with hearing some of the horrifying stories that people have told that have experienced these behaviours,” said LeFurgy.
“It was originally introduced in April 2017 – and it really got a lot of momentum in the fall as part of the entire movement across the country. The Time’s Up movement addresses farmworkers and all these other working-class people: look at Chicago, there’s been a huge story in the New York Times about Ford plant workers in the big car factory here,” said LeFurgy.
This legislation could just be the start of a new wave of protections and focus on women’s needs and issues in Chicago. The City Clerk – one of three citywide elected officials alongside the mayor and the treasurer – is committed to improving things for everybody.
“Our City Clerk, Anna Valencia, has been extremely passionate about women’s equality and elevating women particularly of colour – she’s a Latina herself and the first generation of her family to go to college. She’s a young, passionate woman, who came up in politics,” said LeFurgy.
“In fact, we just had a big press conference here and the entire women’s caucus in the city council wore black in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment to show that they’re more than what they wear and what they look like – they’re their words and they’re their actions.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Zachary Long)