Panelists, from left: Rahmo Guled, translator XX with Jian Hua Jenny Wu, Feliza Ryland, Ermalyn Magtuba, and Maria Estrada wth translator YY.
Panelists, from left: Rahmo Guled, translator Eunice How with Jian Hua "Jenny" Wu, Feliza Ryland, Ermalyn Magtuba, and Maria Estrada with translator Olga Chavarria. ASK

Seattle's hotel room service workers are fed up with their employers' failure to protect and support them. Thanks to a union-backed initiative, hotel workers are one step closer to having adequate healthcare coverage and being protected from sexual harassment. Unite Here Local 8, which represents hotel and service industry workers, successfully gathered enough signatures to put the initiative up for a vote on the November ballot.

Initiative-124 would offer hotel workers protection from sexual harassment and assault by equipping workers with panic buttons in case of emergencies while working alone in a room. Additionally, the policy would require hotel rooms to post a sign reading that the hotel protects Seattle workers and that hotel operators can ban abusive guests for up to three years. The initiative would also require hotel operators to ensure that workers can access affordable health and family care.

In an blog post published in April, the Washington Restaurant Association said the initiative would "implement a wide range of onerous workplace provisions on hotel employers." The WRA, which represents the state's hospitality industry, did not respond to calls for comment at the time of publication.

On Wednesday, a crowd comprised mostly of women of color packed a small, muggy room inside the Seattle Labor Temple Hall in Belltown. They gathered in support of a panel of five female immigrant hotel room service workers who are speaking out against decades of emotional and physical pain they suffered while on the job.

One worker, Maria Estrada, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 12 years ago, told the audience that she now lives with chronic pain in her hands from the years of heavy lifting she has done at work at the Seattle Hilton. Even after a doctor prescribed her special therapy gloves, she still had to have surgery on her hands because of damage to her nerves, she explained through a translator during the panel.

According to a report from Puget Sound Sage, of 1,000 Las Vegas hotel workers surveyed, "95 percent reported workplace pain, and 60 percent experienced severe or very severe back pain."

"As people of color and as immigrants of working families, we can relate to the impact of having a job that chronically creates pain and not having affordable health care. According to our report, room service workers have an injury rate higher than that of coal miners and construction workers," said Claudia Paras, deputy director for PSS.

According to Paras, workers have to lift about 1,000 lbs. of linen and move mattresses every day.

"There is no part of my body that doesn't hurt," said Feliza Ryland, another of the hotel worker panelists who works at the Edgewater Hotel.

Ryland, who is also from Guatemala, said that having to quickly clean up messy rooms, sometimes in less than 30 minutes, adds a lot of additional stress. All of the panelists said the labor is physically demanding.

Ermalyn Magtuba, a Filipina immigrant who works at the Seattle Hilton, said that she has had countless inappropriate interactions with a number of male guests, including having male guests answer their doors naked or drop their towels in front of her.

"I just have to laugh. I'm a small lady, so all I can do is laugh. ... This is the money that pays for my mortgage, my car. So I just have to deal with it," she said in an interview after the panel. "[Managers] do nothing. They check the status of the guest if they're 'gold' or 'diamond' [level]. They're the ones bringing money for the hotel. [Managers] just laugh with you because what can they do? They can't tell the guests to get out because they didn't really touch you."

Other workers have been put in terrifying positions. According to Magtuba, when one of her coworkers delivered room service, a male guest turned on porn on his TV and started masturbating in front of her. Another coworker was nearly raped and hotel managers temporarily allowed room service workers to carry walkie talkies. New management later required workers to use their own cell phones rather than the radios, said Magtuba.

To protect more workers from sexual harassment and assault, I-124 would require hotel managers to provide 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," Heidi reported in May.

"[This policy] is really about gender justice," said Paras of Puget Sound Sage. "It's centering women of color workers and what their issues are. It is long due for a policy in Seattle to be coming from the most impacted. ... The impact is really generational."

Seattle City Council members Kshama Sawant, Mike O'Brien, and Lisa Herbold were also in attendance. After the panelists spoke, Sawant and O'Brien announced their support for the initiative. Herbold had to leave before council members spoke because the panel ran late.

"The only reason this goes on, as we all know, is workers at hotels are invisible. Your fight with this initiative is making the invisible, visible—that's the most important issue," said Sawant.