"No industry is immune from dealing with the issues of sexual harassment," said Katherine Lugar, president and chief executive of AHLA. "Combating this takes vigilance."
The hotel industry has had to contend with issues of worker safety, particularly for housekeepers and others who work in private hotel rooms and may often be alone on the job. Moreover, the rise of the #MeToo movement has put additional pressure on large hotel chains to mandate stricter protections for tens of thousands of workers. Over the past decade, more than a quarter of sexual harassment charges were filed in industries heavily staffed by service workers, according to a November analysis by the Center for American Progress of unpublished data by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Calls for worker safety, especially in connection with sexual harassment, have previously come before top-tier-hotel executives. In May, eight female Marriott employees traveled to the company's annual shareholder meeting to tell their experiences of harassment on the job. Arne Sorenson, Marriott's president and chief executive, responded to each comment by telling the employees that they should not have to come to work fearful for their safety.
Unite Here, the largest hospitality worker union in North America, said the decision to provide emergency devices “is a welcome reversal from years of opposition to these measures by the industry.” The union is also urging hoteliers to address two other worker-safety measures: policies to remove guests mid-stay if they harass or violate a hotel employee, and to block offenders from immediately rebooking at the same hotel where a past incident occurred.
With the partnership, companies will provide ongoing training and education on identifying and reporting experiences of sexual harassment. And they will provide employees in the United States with personal safety devices to have on hand at work, including in private guest rooms.
Some hotels already provide the safety devices in cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle and Washington, in some cases to comply with local legislation. Under the new pledge, participating hotel companies will expand use of their devices depending on the layout and features of their properties.
Personal safety devices come in different forms, and no single device may work best in all situations. Devices that rely on WiFi, for example, won't fit every building in every locale. Similarly, the training needs of workers in large, urban hotels may differ from those at more rural properties.
"One of the lessons learned from the last 30 years is a lot of sexual harassment training and policies were off the shelf," Tchen said. "They probably all looked alike, across industries, across types of employers. That's why it doesn't work. You do have to have solutions that are tailored to the scenarios that you're working in."
AHLA convened a task force in 2017 to begin outlining the initiative, and in July this year, organized a meeting of company executives, lawmakers and security experts to discuss best-practice safety tools. On Thursday, hotel executives said the partnership was not "static" but rather an "evolution" that would require a constant reassessment of the ways to keep employees and guests safe. Lugar estimated that the initiative's entire rollout would cost tens of millions of dollars affecting tens of thousands of people.
The alliance also relies on guidance from organizations specifically working to combat sexual assault and human trafficking, including End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
Erika Alexander, Marriott's chief lodging services officer for the Americas, told The Washington Post that worker safety is not a new topic for the hotel industry. Rather, what has changed is the capability of new technology that can be used for worker safety. Alexander praised the hotel chains for setting aside competition to take on a shared intolerance of harmful and dangerous behavior.
Alexander said that as technology improves, the accessibility and affordability of personal devices and other safety tools will improve for hoteliers and their thousands of employees.
"This isn't a new conversation,” Alexander said. “We're amping up our practices to make sure that we're taking advantage of all the advancements around us."
Still, hotel executives said, the initiative is about more than emergency protections in that it aims to comprehensively ensure that workers don't find themselves in dangerous situations to begin with.
"The device comes into play when there is a problem," said Elie Maalouf, chief executive of IHG for the Americas. "The primary objective we have is to avoid that problem."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the initiative's entire rollout would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars", according to the president and chief executive of American Hotel & Lodging Association. The chief executive later said she misspoke and meant tens of millions of dollars. This version has been corrected.