NEW YORK — Hotel housekeepers say they often feel a twinge of fear when they slide the key card, turn the door handle and step into a room to clean it. What will they find?
For Argelia Rico, it was a naked man who touched himself as he ogled her. For Kimberly Phillips, it was a pair of dogs that tore into her leg.
Last week the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was charged with chasing a housekeeper around his $3,000-a-night penthouse suite and forcing her to perform oral sex on him at the Sofitel hotel in New York.
Labor groups and hotel housekeepers have reported at least 10 other such incidents in the United States in recent years, from Gaithersburg to remote Grand Island, Neb.
Many more are hushed up, labor groups say, because the victims are illegal immigrants or because hotels are wary of scaring off guests. Many hotels laid off security staff during the recession, leaving workers even more vulnerable, they said.
“It’s dangerous work,” said Yazmin Vazquez, who works at a hotel in downtown Chicago. “These customers think they can use us for anything they want, because we don’t have the power that they have or the money that they have.”
Anthony Roman, a consultant based on New York’s Long Island who spent 30 years working security for hotels, said he knows of dozens of incidents involving female room attendants, from drunken propositions to rape.
“They’re not an infrequent occurrence,” he said.
Hotels try to make sure housekeepers are not alone for their whole shift, Roman said, but “if you have a sexual predator by nature, all bets are off.”
At the luxury hotel in Toronto where Andria Babbington worked for 17 years, housekeepers especially hated doing “turndown” service, which involves preparing beds for the night.
Some men would put money on the pillow, ask for sexual favors and tell the women they could take the money when they left, Babbington said.
Others took a more circuitous route to the same end. They would inquire about a housekeeper’s home country and how many family members they were supporting. Then came some sympathetic-sounding questions about how much the hotel paid them, followed by an offer of money for sex.
One guest bugged Babbington for days about having a threesome with his wife. She hid her name tag whenever she cleaned his room. If a housekeeper reacted angrily, the guest would find some reason to raise a stink, she said.
“When they complained, the management would send a fruit basket up to their room and offer them a discount on their next stay,” Babbington said. “It became the norm, and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Now a union organizer, the 45-year-old Babbington said she hears similar stories from workers at other hotels.
Rico, a 38-year-old housekeeper at a hotel in Irvine, Calif., said she was cleaning a bathroom in 2009 when a guest entered and asked her to change his sheets. She did, then went to get her cleaning supplies out of the bathroom.
When she came out he was lying naked on the bed, watching her and touching himself, she said.
“When I told my supervisors, they didn’t do anything,” Rico said. “From then on I had to ask a co-worker from the floor upstairs to accompany me so I could clean his room, because that really scared me.”
Phillips was cleaning rooms at a Hampton Inn in Lebanon, Ky., last year when she opened the door of Room 118 to find two dogs. The animals attacked her left leg, biting through to the bone, until a hotel guest fought them off with Phillips’s broom.
The dogs belonged to a contractor who was staying at the hotel while doing work there.
Phillips, 40, now uses a cane and walks with a limp. She has nerve damage in her leg and suffers from panic attacks.
“It’s completely changed my whole life,” she said. “Even to sit outside, I can’t do that. I’m afraid a dog is going to approach me.”
The Hampton Inn’s manager, Becky Edlin, said the hotel had tightened its security measures after the attack. She declined to elaborate.
Many hotels have adopted policies aimed at protecting housekeepers, such as barring them from cleaning rooms while they are occupied. One standard practice is to prop the open door with a supply cart.
Vazquez, 40, said she started wearing extra clothes under her uniform as an added layer of protection after a VIP guest barged into a bathroom she was cleaning and pulled out his privates in August. She also wears a jacket that comes down to her thighs. “Anything to hide your figure,” she said.
Some hotels will send only male employees to a room late at night if their computers show a guest is watching pornography, said Carl Boger, dean of academics at the University of Houston’s college of hotel management.
They can also monitor who opens a door and when by looking at the electronic lock system, he said. In the New York case, those records should help investigators determine the timeline of the alleged attack and whether the housekeeper had propped the door open, Boger said.
The Sofitel’s open-door security policy was in place before Strauss-Kahn was charged in the alleged May 14 attack. Sofitel officials say they are not aware of any other such incidents involving maids at any of their worldwide hotels.
The 32-year-old maid, an immigrant from Guinea who worked for the Sofitel for three years, told police that a naked Strauss-Kahn accosted her after she came into the room, attacking her in the bedroom and bathroom before she got away.
Strauss-Kahn was indicted on multiple charges, including attempted rape and sexual abuse. He posted $1 million cash bail and a $5 million insurance bond and is under house arrest in Manhattan.
Labor groups worry that the recession has created more danger by forcing hotels to cut back on security guards and housekeepers. “You’re on a floor by yourself, with those long hallways and nobody around, cleaning 30 rooms a day alone,” said Tho Do, a vice president of Unite Here, a union representing hotel workers. “You don’t have a lot of protection.”