As Sydney mentioned in Morning News, three groups representing local hotels—the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the Washington Hospitality Association, and the Seattle Hotel Association—are suing the City of Seattle in an effort to block recently passed new protections for hotel workers in the city.
Initiative 124, the latest union-backed, worker-friendly measure embraced by Seattle, passed handily in November and will require panic buttons and other protections against sexual harassment and assault. It will also require hotel owners to help pay workers' healthcare, limit housekeepers' workloads, and protect workers' jobs when hotels transfer ownership. As part of the sexual harassment protections, hotels will be required to keep lists of guests accused of harassing or assaulting employees and then notify workers assigned to those guests' rooms in the future. In some cases, hotels will be required to ban guests accused of assault or harassment. (Read the full text of the new law here.)
Throughout the fall, hotel groups argued against the initiative, claiming it was written without their input and would strip guests of their "due process" rights—making their lawsuit unsurprising.
But what are the chances they'll actually win? I put that question to Charlotte Garden, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law who specializes in labor law.
"There is no claim [in the hotels' case] that strikes me as kind of a slam dunk," Garden told me. "To the contrary, I would say it seems like an uphill climb for the plaintiffs on most of these claims."
In their complaint, filed in King County Superior Court, the hotel groups make several claims. They say the initiative violated the rule requiring initiatives to deal with only one subject, that its title didn't accurately reflect the initiative, and that various pieces of the new law are conflicted or preempted by state and federal labor laws. But the crux of their argument is focused on the new rules about how to deal with guests who allegedly harass or abuse hotel employees.
"If a hotel employee merely accuses a guest of assault or harassment, the hotel is required to place the guest’s name on the list, whether or not the employee is willing to sign a sworn statement, make a police report, or offer any supporting evidence," the groups write in their complaint. "The names on the list are not required to be kept secret."
The initiative says employers must record any accusations that a guest has assaulted or harassed an employee. Hotels are required to temporarily blacklist guests only if the accusation is "supported by a statement made under penalty of perjury or other evidence."
That requirement, the hotel groups write, "forces hotels to damage the reputation of accused guests, and expose them to public shame, without making any assessment of the truth of the accusations."
Specifically, the hotel groups claims this process violates guests' due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and their privacy rights under the Washington State Constitution.
In making their arguments, the hotel groups cite a 1971 case that challenged a practice in which the chief of police in Hartford, Wisconsin, would post notices about people who should not be allowed to buy alcohol because of "excessive drinking" that made them potentially dangerous. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people had the right to be notified and heard before their names were posted publicly on such a list, potentially damaging their reputation.
But these cases aren't quite comparable, Garden said. In Hartford, the government was determining someone wouldn't be allowed to buy alcohol and then posting their information in public. Here, hotels are maintaining the lists privately and are not in all cases forced to refuse these guests service in the future.
"The hotels are not saying it would be improper for private hotels to decide on their own initiative to adopt these policies," Garden said. "So this is really about whether the state can make the decision for the hotels... This case is not about the rights of hotel guests. This is about the rights of hotels to decide how they want to respond to sexual assault or harassment against employees and keep them safe."
A lawyer representing the hotel groups directed questions to a spokesperson for the Washington Hospitality Association, who said in a statement the blacklist rule "forces our industry to choose between protecting our guests or protecting our employees. Our industry must protect both."
The labor-funded advocacy group Working Washington, meanwhile, is collecting signatures on an online petition urging the groups to drop the lawsuit.
The case is currently scheduled to go to trial next December.