This Is What Happens When Hotel Housekeepers Say, ‘Hands Off! Pants On!’

It’s difficult to explain just how much hotel housekeepers endure when it comes to sexual harassment.

Latonia M., left, is a housekeeper in Chicago and a member of UNITE HERE Local 1, with her sister-in-law LaFrances who inspired an organizing drive before dying from breast cancer almost exactly five years ago.

Latonia M. broke it down. She’s a shop steward and longtime hotel worker in the Chicago area. (Latonia doesn’t want to use her last name or the name of the hotel where she works.)

Housekeepers have been groped, trapped in bathrooms and surprised at the door by naked hotel guests.

The housekeepers have escaped by scrambling away across beds, calling for a co-worker, and backing out of a room and closing the door.

“We’re at work for eight hours. The majority of this time is alone,” Latonia said. “You never know the situation that you could be in, and it can happen really fast.”

That kind of harassment has been so common for so long, that many managers and even workers shrugged it off, Latonia said. At best, managers would give the housekeeping room assignment to another worker.

Two years ago, Latonia and her fellow members of UNITE HERE Local 1 decided to do something about it.

“At the time, it was just a conversation,” she said. “I never thought it would be as big as it is now.”

Leaders from the union would come to Latonia’s hotel during her lunch break. As one of the stewards, she fielded questions from the housekeepers. She always had the same response:

“I’d say, ‘Fill out the survey. We go through this every day, but people don’t know. This is your opportunity to explain how it really happens,’” she said.

Today, Latonia can stand up fearlessly at a rally and speak to the crowd, but it took a long time for her to become an outspoken activist at work. During the early part of her career, she simply did her job and raised her family. But it was the treatment of her sister-in-law LaFrances, who also worked at the hotel, that spurred Latonia to action.

Latonia and her boys

It happened about 10 years ago. At around the same time that Latonia’s co-workers began to talk about how a union could improve their jobs, LaFrances was diagnosed with breast cancer. This is a hard subject to talk about with Latonia because she has to stop and cry every few minutes, but she doesn’t stop telling her story.

Before the workers won union recognition, managers wouldn’t adjust LaFrances’ workload or even give her extra unpaid time off when she was sick from chemotherapy.

As the company fought against the flexibility her sister-in-law needed to care for herself and her three small children, Latonia became an increasingly relentless union advocate. She organized work crews who would take some of LaFrances’ room assignments, and she also talked to everyone she could about the urgent need for a voice on the job. The workers held a vote, won union recognition and began to bargain the first contract. The company stalled and fought back every step of the way. Even as the cancer wore her down, LaFrances participated in the negotiating process. It took more than four and a half years to finally ratify a new contract. About a year after that victory, LaFrances died.

“I knew after her passing that I couldn’t stop fighting and organizing my hotel. So that’s what I did,” Latonia said.

She turned grief into action and became a leader in the fight to stop sexual harassment. The campaign required dogged determination, and it was a fight for dignity.

“We don’t want to be retaliated against or disciplined for speaking out about what happens to us in the hospitality industry. We want to be able to talk,” Latonia said.

After completing the petition, UNITE HERE Local 1 published the results and came up with a list of demands as part of a campaign called “Hands Off Pants On.” The union members wanted policies at work on sexual harassment with real penalties for bad actors. More importantly, they wanted the freedom and space to raise concerns about their safety, along with an employer-provided panic button, a way to summon hotel security at a moment’s notice.

Last October, Latonia and dozens of other UNITE HERE Local 1 members went to City Hall in Chicago for the signing of a new ordinance that included concrete tools to combat sexual harassment and to hold hotels and guests accountable. The new rule says hotels must have anti-harassment policies and, yes, a panic button.

The timing happened to coincide with the news of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of abusive and harassing behavior. It felt great to Latonia to be part of a national uprising of working women, with everyone demanding dignity and safety on the job.

Hotels have until July 1 to comply with the new ordinance. The hotel where Latonia works just posted the new harassment policy last week.

“My manager came up to me. He gave me this piece of paper, the policy on sexual harassment! I’m so happy we have it. We fought for two years for this! Our time is now,” she said.
Members of UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago in October 2017, after the City Council passed an ordinance to protect hotel housekeepers.