Nationwide, there’s a push to make hotel, casino, and restaurant workers safer from on-the-job sexual harassment, thanks to expanding passage of legislation that requires companies to provide individual panic buttons to its workers.
One Philadelphia business — ROAR for Good — is part of that movement. Its cofounder, Yasmine Mustafa, knows firsthand the vulnerabilities faced by workers in the hospitality industry. She spent 14 years in low-end jobs, many as an undocumented worker. What she encountered instilled in her a passion to work for the underserved.
In 1990, Mustafa, then 8 years old, and her family were evacuated from Kuwait when Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded. One of her brothers had been born in the United States and was therefore a U.S. citizen, which allowed the family to immigrate here. It wasn’t until Mustafa applied to college that she realized she was not a U.S. citizen. Without a Social Security number, she could only get jobs at places whose employees were paid under the table.
“I experienced a lot of unsafe conditions” at the restaurants where she worked, said Mustafa, 37, who is now an American citizen and Temple University alumna. Sexual harassment was at the top of the list.
When the pressures from the harassment became too much, Mustafa would hop from one restaurant to another. At one now-defunct area eatery, the manager demanded sexual favors from female workers in exchange for being given good shifts on the schedule. Workers were expected to kiss him, perform a sexual act, or have intercourse. When Mustafa refused, she found herself out of a job.
“I got written off the schedule,” she said.
Memories of those experiences stayed with her through college, where she studied information technology, and inspired her to cofound ROAR for Good, a tech company that has focused on the creation of wearable safety devices. Its first product was “Athena,” a piece of jewelry worn as a pendant or pin, that users could activate to sound an emergency alarm or text their location to others.
The product was discontinued at the end of 2019, and ROAR for Good is now focusing on “AlwaysOn," a panic button that allows hospitality workers to summon help from management when they encounter trouble on the job. It sends a push notification that pinpoints the exact location of the user to an iPad-like mobile console kept either at the hotel’s front desk or in the security area. Loud beeps let staff know that an alert has been sounded, and management can quickly respond.
The call for such technology was born in 2016, when a “Hands Off Pants On” worker-safety campaign was launched by United Here Local 1 — the Chicago branch of the labor union representing more than 300,000 workers in hotel, food service, laundry, warehouse, and casino gaming industries. The campaign helped advocates win passage of a panic button ordinance in Illinois.
As part of its campaign, the union surveyed nearly 500 women who worked in 13 metropolitan-area hotels, three casinos, and one convention center in the Chicago area. Fifty-eight percent of respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment from guests, including being kissed, grabbed, groped, pressured for dates or sexual favors, or being cornered. Forty-nine percent of those who worked as housekeepers reported that a guest would “answer the door naked, expose themselves, or flash them.”
Of those who experienced sexual harassment or assault from a guest, only one-third reported the incident to a supervisor or manager. Those who didn’t stated that they believed little would be done to address the inappropriate behavior.
In 2018, major U.S. hotel chains — including Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham — made a voluntary pledge via the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) to provide safety devices to employees by the end of 2020 and to enhance policies, trainings, and resources aimed at preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault. AlwaysOn is one of the few options on the market. So far, six hotel companies have committed to provide the devices, according to the AHLA.
In June 2019, New Jersey became the first state to actually require the panic buttons. While there is no legislation in Pennsylvania requiring the devices, some unions have the requirement in their contracts, said Mustafa.
Marriott Vacations Worldwide, a time-share company, purchased AlwaysOn more than a year ago, said David Bareno, the company’s assistant vice president of global safety and security. Currently, the device is in use in its Miami Beach and Galloway, N.J., locations, with more properties expected to soon follow suit. (So far, no employee at either location has had to use the device.)
AlwaysOn was chosen because it was more accurate and less expensive compared than other products on the market, he said.
“Our CEO wanted to provide this protection. Anyone who has to go into guest rooms by themselves gets the device. They can easily push the button and get help," said Bareno. If a housekeeper encounters a guest having a medical problem, they are still instructed to call 911 to summon an ambulance, he added.
Companies using AlwaysOn are cautioned not to activate the system for nonemergency situations, like calling for extra linens. But it has been used to summon help for falls, injuries, and — in one case — when a worker felt faint after her blood-sugar level abruptly changed, said Mustafa.
The possibilities for its use, in other words, can "span beyond sexual harassment,” Mustafa said.
As for the future, Mustafa is speaking with management at a handful of area hotels about implementing use of AlwaysOn at their properties. She’s also looking to partner with a local boutique hotel to use its property as a testing ground for new features. Also on the horizon are discussions with schools that would benefit from having panic buttons in classrooms or dormitories.