Seattle has about 7,500 hotel workers, according to the union Unite Here Local 8.
Seattle has about 7,500 hotel workers, according to the union Unite Here Local 8. Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Hotel housekeepers in Seattle could soon have new protections against sexual harassment and work-related injuries, thanks to a city initiative filed last month by a local union. Unite Here Local 8, which represents workers in the hotel and service industry, will start gathering signatures this week in hopes of getting their initiative on the November ballot.

To protect hotel workers, particularly housekeepers, from sexual harassment and assault, the initiative would require panic buttons for employees who work alone in guest rooms. Hotel operators would be required to keep lists of guests accused of harassing or assaulting employees and then to notify workers assigned to those guests' rooms in the future. In some cases, hotels would be required to ban guests accused of assault or harassment. Workers who experienced assaults or harassment would be given time to report that to the police and the option of working in a different area of the hotel.

While hotel-specific research is limited, advocates, anecdotes, and common sense say women working alone in hotel rooms are vulnerable to harassment and assault. After Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel housekeeper, another housekeeper told the New York Times a guest once grabbed her and tried to kiss her. One retired housekeeper told the Times she carried a can opener to protect herself after a guest propositioned her; another said at least five guests had exposed themselves to her during her 17 years as a housekeeper.

"It's an industry built on the mentality that the guest is always right," says Abby Lawlor, who's leading Unite Here Local 8's Seattle initiative campaign. "There are two issues for women who face harassment. One is the harassment itself, but the second one is feeing like their manager or their boss isn't going to listen to them when they come forward with stories."

Along with the sexual harassment protections, the initiative includes other worker protections that are likely to face opposition from the hotel industry:

To protect employees from "disruptions in the hotel industry," the initiative would protect workers' jobs when a hotel is sold to a new owner. If a hotel transferred ownership, the new owners would be required to offer employees of the previous owner jobs before hiring new workers.

To protect workers from injury, the initiative would require large hotels to limit housekeepers' workloads to 5,000 square feet of floor space per eight-hour work day. Housekeepers required to clean more would earn time-and-a-half.

To increase workers' access to healthcare, the initiative would require large hotels that don't offer healthcare to pay certain "low-wage" workers a monthly stipend in order to help them pay for their own insurance. The workers who qualify and the amount paid would be calculated based on the employees' wages, their family size, the federal poverty line, and rates on the state health care exchange.

The protections against sexual harassment and ownership transfer would apply to all hotels in the city with 60 or more rooms. The healthcare requirements and workload limits would apply only to hotels with 100 or more rooms. The initiative would give hotel workers the right to sue their employer in King County Superior Court or file a complaint with the city.

Jenne Neptune, the general manager of the Alexis Hotel and president of the Seattle Hotel Association, said in an email the group is "still working through the initiative to understand all of its implications, but many of its claims are unjustified. If there are ways we can better serve our employees, we always seek to do that in a way that makes sense for everyone involved." The Washington State Restaurant Association, which recently merged with the state hotel trade group, did not reply to a request for comment.