In the 17 years that Ely Dar, 60, has worked as a hotel housekeeper at the Westin Seattle, she says she’s experienced sexual harassment from a number of guests. In one of the most memorable instances, Dar recalls an instance 10 years ago when she entered a room in the evening to remake a bed and lightly refresh the bathroom.
Dar bent her diminutive, 5-foot 2-inch frame forward to place the refilled ice bucket on the coffee table, when she says she heard a man who approached from behind call her “beautiful” and then wrap his arms around her. Surprised, Dar quickly pushed him away, ran out of the room and towards her manager, who called security. The guest voluntarily checked himself out of the hotel after the guards locked his room so he couldn’t enter it with his key, she says. However, Dar wanted her manager to do more at the time, like take legal action against the guest or to ensure more protection for workers so it wouldn’t happen again.
“That’s harassment,” Dar said. “I don’t know the law because at that time I was new … the guest you’re supposed to sue about the harassment he’s doing to me, but they didn’t,” Dar said about the incident’s aftermath. Dar was one of 52 downtown Seattle hotel workers, 53 percent of the total respondents, who reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault on the job for a 2016 Puget Sound Sage survey.
For that reason, and several other unsavory experiences such as a guest granting her permission to enter the room only to be naked, Dar was thrilled about last year’s passage of I-124. The union-backed measure designed to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment and workplace hazards received 77 percent voter approval. Among other provisions, the ordinance requires hotels to provide workers with panic buttons and to ban guests if the victim provides a sworn accusation of sexual harassment.
But one year after its passage, Dar and her coworkers on the Westin’s night shift say that nothing has changed for them at their workplace. In general, Unite Here Local 8 organizers who helped spearhead the initiative say that implementation of the ordinance has been spotty, with some hotels following the provisions and others not. The Office of Labor Standards has yet to enforce the rules and the hotel industry’s lawsuit and recent appeal of the ordinance has placed additional obstacles on its rollout, organizers say.
“It’s an extra hurdle for us to be putting pressure on a company because they’re able to say, ‘Well, we don’t have guidelines yet; we don’t know exactly how we’re supposed to be implementing the law,’ ” said Unite Here Local 8 organizer Abby Lawlor. “And we don’t have a means yet of being able to hold them accountable,” she added.
Although Dar attests that she hasn’t been sexually harassed in the past year, it’s not because her employer has given her additional rights or protections.
“Everything is the same when I worked in the night,” Dar said when asked about changes over the past year. Originally from the Philippines, Dar has worked the night shift for nearly two decades so she can watch her grandchildren during the day.
Hotels have different mechanisms that allow the workers to call for help. For instance, the Edgewater Hotel gives each of its workers on the daytime and nighttime crew a plastic panic button attached to their keychain. The Westin’s daytime crew is equipped with an iPod Touch device that has a panic button feature, but workers like Dar on the nighttime shift still haven’t been given one.
This is puzzling to Unite Here Local 8 organizer Eunice How, who says that the nighttime shift is “potentially more dangerous” because there’s less staff and a greater likelihood that guests are drinking alcohol. According to the Puget Sound Sage survey, 95 percent of hotel workers said they would feel safer with a panic button.
Dar has been on work leave since July due to an injury, but How confirmed that others on the Westin’s night shift have yet to receive a panic button over a year after the ordinance went into effect on November 30, 2016. The Westin did not immediately respond to Seattle Weekly’s requests for comment.
“We don’t know exactly why they’re not communicating to the nighttime housekeepers the change in the law,” said How. She added that the Office of Labor Standards has been “too busy” to start the rulemaking process for the law. “I think Ely is unique because she works at night and there’s less supervision and managerial oversight,” she added.
According to Dar, the law’s provision limiting housekeepers to clean 5000 square feet per day also hasn’t been followed during her shift. “Nobody talking to me about the law,” Dar said.
Although Lawlor says that they’ve been putting pressure on the Westin and other hotels to equip their workers with panic buttons and to follow the workload provisions, it’s been difficult to do so since the law has no teeth. There also isn’t a mechanism for workers to file complaints, so there’s no record of whether sexual harassment has decreased in the past year. Lawlor is unsure how many hotels currently distribute panic buttons, but she said that some, including the Arctic Club Seattle, have reduced housekeepers’ workloads and posted signs in their guest rooms indicating that the law protects workers from sexual harassment.
Legal action has also prevented the ordinance from being fully implemented, How said. Less than a month after the initiative became law, the Seattle Hotel Association, the Washington Hospitality Association, and the American Hotel & Lodging Association sued the city of Seattle for “impeding the industry’s ability to manage and provide opportunities to its workforce, while violating the rights of our customers,” the Washington Hospitality Association said in a December 2016 statement. The groups primarily opposed the law’s requirement that hotels bar a guest from staying at the hotel for three years when a worker provides a sworn accusation of sexual harassment. In June, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick issued a ruling upholding the ordinance.
Yet, the Seattle Hotel Association is currently appealing the ruling to the Washington State Supreme Court, which prompted Unite Here Local 8 to launch a petition last week urging local hotels to be accountable to their workers.
“We’re in a moment where it’s never been more evident that sexual harassment and sexual assault are workplace issues for women in a variety of industries,” said Lawlor, referencing the #MeToo movement that has brought national attention to workplace sexual harassment. “This initiative is a really important example of the fact that it’s possible to take steps of public policy to try and address these concerns and make workplaces more safe for women,” she added.
Hotel workers on the nighttime crew like Dar may soon feel safer in their workplaces. Stephanie Formas, a spokesperson for the Mayor, wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly that Durkan plans on taking steps to implement the law this month. Durkan “strongly supported I-124” because she previously represented victims of sexual harrassment and assault, Formas said. “The Mayor believes that every person, including hotel workers in our city, should have the right to go to work without fear of sexual harassment, assault, or injury,” Formas said. “As Mayor, she’s committed to the enforcement of key provisions of I-124. Mayor Durkan believes we must expedite the implementation of I-124. The Mayor will direct OLS to brief her on the status and plan for implementation by December 15,” she confirmed.