Long Beach City Council Sends Housekeeper “Panic Button” Measure to Voters

Workers held up signs in support of the panic button measure. Courtesy Maria Hernandez of UNITE HERE Local 11

For the second time in less than 12 months, an initiative to provide housekeepers with a “panic button” to protect against sexual harassment came before the Long Beach city council. Back in September, a similar measure failed with council voting 5-4 against it after an emotional, hours-long debate on the eve of the #MeToo movement’s rise. UNITE HERE Local 11, a union representing hotel workers, responded by successfully gathering enough petition signatures to put panic buttons as well as additional housekeeper protections on this November’s ballot.

Last night, the hotel workers union, community groups and feminist activists pushed for council to adopt the initiative months ahead of the election. 

“We are asking that Long Beach City Council does the right thing and listens to the voices of working women over the voices of hotel owners,” said Lorena Lopez, Unite HERE Local 11 organizing director, before the meeting. “Every day workers are denied these protections is another day women are put at risk. This cannot stand.” 

But adopting the ordinance was just one of three options before council members. They also had the choice of sending the measure to the November ballot or ordering up an economic impact report that would delay a city-wide vote until 2020 or a costly special election. 

Opponents of the measure spoke out against it early on during public comments. “This initiative would impose unnecessary and arbitrary regulations on an industry that has already voluntarily instated safety regulations and measures of their own,” said John Howard, chair of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce board. “But our concern with this ordinance isn’t simply that it is redundant and unnecessary. This initiative would cause major damage to an industry that many in our city rely on.”

Howard called for an economic impact report after warning that passage of the ordinance would hamper the ability of hoteliers to stay competitive in local tourism. Others opposed to the initiative called on council to pass an emergency ordinance at the next meeting giving all hotels panic buttons, not just for those with 50 rooms or more. They argued that other provisions–like paying housekeepers double for being expected to clean more than 4,000 square feet in a workday and giving them the right to refuse overtime shifts without fear of retaliation–would result in hoteliers having to hire more housekeepers and increase room rates. 

The initiative, dubbed Claudia’s Law, is named for housekeeper Claudia Sanchez. She worked at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown before falling into a coma following a 14-hour shift in 2015. She later awoke from the comatose state, but suffered partial paralysis. 

Speakers supportive of the measure outnumbered opponents and stressed the panic button provision of the measure. Juana Melara, a Long Beach Westin housekeeper featured in TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year profile on #MeToo “silence breakers” last year, relayed her experiences on the job.”I was tired of being harassed, ignored and abused,” said Melara. “Very few people understand what housekeepers go through. In the 23 years that I have been working, more than a few times guests have asked me for sexual favors and have exposed their private parts to me.” 

For councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, last night’s vote offered her colleagues a second chance to redeem September’s vote and the fallout after it. “The opportunity we have before us tonight could be a healing moment,” she said. “There are some triggers when we hear these stories retold. I don’t want us to have that debate for five more months.” Pearce tearfully called for her colleagues to pass the ordinance at the meeting to avoid women having to speak out again about rape, assault, harassment and overwork. She also deemed the economic impact report nothing more than a “delay tactic.” 

But her impassioned plea could not carry the night and fell one colleague short of a majority vote. By the end of the discussion, the council ended up unanimously voting to place the measure on the November ballot with a concurrent study of its economic impact to the city. The decision drew a few jeers of “shame on you!” and even a sardonic “thanks, Democrats” from the audience. 


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