US hotel and casino workers fight back against violence and harassment


When Kasey Nalls was in her early twenties and starting out as a casino server, she followed the lead of more experienced workers when customers subjected her to off-colour jokes, moved on to cruder remarks and escalated to groping.

Nalls said her co-workers “obviously felt nothing would be done” if they complained.

“You deal with it and you just keep on going.”

A decade after getting her first job serving drinks, Nalls was amongst 487 women asked about gender-based harassment and violence on the job in Chicago area hotels and casinos by a local chapter of UNITE HERE, a union that represents hospitality and other industry workers in the United States and Canada.

According to the survey results compiled in Hands Off, Pants On, a report the union released this summer, nearly six in every 10 hotel workers and eight of 10 casino workers surveyed reported sexual harassment at the hands of a guest. Half the housekeepers reported having had a guest answer the door naked, expose himself or flash them.

Nalls said she and workers like her found being listened to was empowering. “No one had ever asked them how they felt.”

More and more women are talking about the dangers they face at work. This is leading to new strategies and partnerships to combat a problem that had been in the shadows.

In one of the most high-profile cases of violence at work, in 2011 New York hotel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a prominent French politician who then led the International Monetary Fund, of attacking her in his suite. Charges that included attempted rape and sexual abuse were eventually dropped, and in 2012 Diallo and Kahn agreed to an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which were never made public.

While the case brought attention to the issue, said UNITE HERE research analyst Sarah Lyons, it also made clear that while anecdotes were rife, little data had been collected on the extent of the problem.


Why victims keep quiet

Lyons wrote in Hands Off, Pants On that “the social and economic status of the male guests who frequent hotels, casinos and convention centres often contrasts sharply with that of the women who work there.” The imbalance may keep women from coming forward, in part for fear they will be seen as less credible than the accused.

Only a third of the women questioned by UNITE HERE Chicago said they had reported harassment. Many who had not said that they had seen nothing change after others made reports, or that harassment from guests was so common they had become inured to it.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received between 6,000 and 8,000 sexual harassment complaints – the vast majority from women – in each of the years between 2010 and 2015. Christine Saah Nazer, a spokeswoman for the commission, acknowledges that “the numbers aren’t very high.

“We believe this is because a lot of sexual harassment goes unreported,” she said.

“This issue can affect women who work in agricultural fields as well as boardrooms, but either way, it can be a difficult decision to come forward and speak about one’s experience for fear of losing your job, tainting your reputation or worse, including violent retaliation by the harasser.”

The EEOC cites US studies that have determined anywhere from 25 to 85 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, with researchers saying the wide range reflects differences amongst industries, in how questions are phrased and awareness of what constitutes abuse.

In Chicago, Nalls would like to see repeat harassers barred from casinos, which are known for banning people accused of cheating at the gaming tables.
If a guest “stole from the casino, they wouldn’t let him come back,” Nalls said.

“So, if he steals my dignity, why should he be allowed to come back?”


Taking action

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pushed for a proposal signed into law in California earlier this year that will, as of 2019, require companies that provide industrial cleaning services to ensure supervisors and janitors get training to combat sexual harassment and abuse. The union’s End Rape on the Night Shift campaign included a vigil at the California state government building by female janitors who shared their experiences of sexual violence at work.

In Seattle, UNITE HERE backed a proposition known as Initiative 124 that was approved by voters on 8 November. The initiative requires the city’s hoteliers to supply housekeepers with panic buttons and to provide guests with information on laws against sexual harassment.

However, the Seattle Hotel Association opposed the measure, expressing concern that hotel guests accused of harassment would be punished without due process, that workplace rules would be hard to follow, and that some measures were aimed at promoting union membership rather than worker safety.

Association president Jenne Oxford said that while the Seattle proposition had opened an important conversation, she and other managers would preferred to have sat down with unions, elected officials and other stakeholders to address any worker safety concerns.

She said many hotels already equip housekeepers with communications devices such as panic buttons and take steps to ensure that staff and guests are not in rooms at the same time. However, Oxford welcomed the suggestion that guests – and not just employees – be advised of sexual harassment and violence laws.

Some companies have been taking the problem seriously for years, said Fran Sepler, a specialist anti-harassment trainer. But she added, “there remain organisations where there may be policies [against harassment], but if I were to ask an employee where they are, they wouldn’t be able to tell me.”

Employers may be complacent, believing they don’t have a problem, because so few victims come forward, Sepler said.


At a national and international level

A landmark 1986 Supreme Court ruling established that any form of sexual harassment severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment was a civil rights violation. The EEOC has won multi-million dollar awards for workers subjected to sexual harassment and violence at work, and has also forced employers to provide anti-harassment training and accept outside monitors to ensure they comply.

In 2015, the EEOC convened a taskforce on harassment that in a report earlier this year called for strengthening prevention efforts.

“We believe that preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place is preferable to remedying the consequences of discrimination,” EEOC spokesperson Nazer told Equal Times.

The taskforce raised the possibility of borrowing from university campus campaigns aimed at encouraging anyone who sees harassment, even if they are not the victim, to speak up so that abusers begin to understand that society will not look the other way.

During his campaign for the White House, a video of President-elect Donald Trump talking about sexually harassing women was released, leading to a global conversation on the topic. Sepler took a deep, steadying breath when asked about Trump’s comments, before saying that she was appalled to hear so many people defend or excuse his comments.

“We are taking a step backward. Discussing women in lewd, degrading terms has been unacceptable for a generation,” she said. “This is not up for debate.”

In looking for solutions, the EEOC taskforce also considered models like one shaped by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which began organising amongst Florida farmworkers in the 1990s.

The coalition’s Campaign for Fair Food rallies consumer support; corporate buyers are steered to growers who pledge to stop forced labour, child labour or violence, including sexual assault, on their farms.

Abby Lawlor, a researcher for UNITE HERE in Seattle, credits farmworkers for first raising awareness. They were followed by janitorial workers and now hotel staff in a sector-by-sector awakening, she said.

“It’s great that there’s now new momentum,” she said.

At an international level, lobbying by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Workers’ Group resulted late last year in the launch of a standard-setting conversation on violence, particularly gender-based violence, at work. Over the coming years, the ILO will gather data from governments and employer and worker organisations about the extent of the problem in a step toward crafting an international convention.

Labour unions and advocates can provide social support to victims, create systems to respond to particular cases and bring ideas and data to larger public policy debates, according to Lisa McGowan, an expert on gender equality at the Solidarity Center.

Sexual harassment and abuse is “a workplace safety issue,” said McGowan, whose organisation stands with workers around the world to defend their right to freedom of association. “And it is a very basic human rights issue.”