In the wake of the sexual assault allegations against International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, New York legislators are contemplating new proposals that would offer further protections to hotel maids. In May, Strauss-Kahn was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault stemming from an encounter with a hotel maid at the Sofitel Hotel near Times Square.
On May 23rd, Assemblyman Rory Lancman introduced the Hotel Worker Protection Act, which would add a new provision to Section 202 of the Labor Code. Essentially, the bill would allow hotel employees (specifically hotel maids) to carry panic buttons to quickly alert hotel security in case of an emergency.
Lancman chairs the Assembly subcommittee on workplace safety. In speaking to Reuters after introducing the bill, he explained that attacks on hotel maids and housekeepers were relatively common, even though he did not have statistical data to support his position. According to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, 100 hotel maids were assaulted in 2009. However, many more assaults may go unreported since victims may be ambivalent about reporting such incidents out of fear of reprisal. Nevertheless, the bill has garnered support after the Strauss-Kahn indictment. Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, supported the bill. He believes that the proposal would ensure that thousands of hotel workers would not be put at risk.
Lancman also introduced the Housekeeper Injury Prevention Act, which would require hotels to use fitted sheets instead of flat sheets, so that housekeepers would not have to constantly lift heavy mattresses when changing bed linens. He estimates that housekeepers lift 50 pound mattresses 15 to 20 times per day. The cumulative effects of such lifting could lead to debilitating injuries and warrant such a protection.
Sofitel is also taking steps to ensure workplace safety. It recently allowed chambermaids to wear trousers instead of traditional dresses after workers complained about its uniform.
While Sofitel’s compromise is a good public relations story, it is more likely a calculated step taken to avoid a future negligent security claim. Under the theory of premises liability, a property owner can be held liable for failing reasonable steps to protect employees or patrons from criminal acts on company property. As such, employers have a duty to protect employees from criminal acts that could be committed in the course of doing their jobs. Statistical data regarding the frequency of sexual assault on hotel maids is not easily found. But given that a large majority of hospitality workers are women, it is likely that those working in high end establishments may encounter abuse. As such, sexual assault (especially in a hotel setting) is a reasonably foreseeable act that can be prevented.
Many high-end hotels, including Marriott, Four Seasons, Loews and Ritz-Carlton are reviewing their security protocols in light of the Strauss-Kahn incident.
Aside from the specter of sexual assault, housekeepers face a daunting workload that appears to be increasing. According to the advocacy group Hotel Workers Rising, housekeepers are facing increasing injuries due to the pressure to clean more rooms in less time. Hotel maids are suffering sprains and strains a nearly double the rate of non-housekeepers. Back, knee and wrist injuries are the most common ailments that befall hotel workers.
This is likely because each room now has more items to lift and clean. With more luxury rooms, maids must lift heavier mattresses, lay more sheets, stuff duvet pillows and clean additional items (such as large mirrors and coffee pots) without additional time to properly complete these tasks. Maids must also strain to clean showers and push heavier linen carts. With business travel increasing, housekeepers are under more pressure to ensure a quality hotel experience, even though staffing levels are not increasing with demand. The Hotel Workers Rising report also indicated that injured workers are returning sooner than they should.
It remains to be seen whether Assemblyman Lancman’s safety bills will actually improve workplace conditions for hotel maids. They must also pass through the state senate before reaching the governor’s office. In the meantime, enforcement of wage and hour laws would offer more immediate protections, as hotel workers are likely pressured to work through break periods (and off the clock) to maintain room cleaning schedules.
If you have questions about your rights in the workplace, an experienced attorney can advise you.