The New Jersey Panic Device Law: Protecting the Safety of Vulnerable Hotel Employees

Being a hotel hospitality worker shouldn’t demand putting yourself at risk of assault, sexual assault or harassment.  Yet unfortunately, housekeepers, room service servers, and other hotel employees whose duties involve entering guest rooms alone report a high incidence of assault and/or harassment by guests.  

For instance, a hospitality workers’ union conducted a survey of members in Seattle and Chicago; while the survey pool was limited, 53% reported having been subjected to harassment while on the job.  As reported by NPR, such harassment involved, among other things, unwanted exposure to guest nudity, guest solicitations for sex, groping, cornering, and verbal abuse.

Experts contend that hospitality workers subjected to such treatment are discouraged from reporting it to their employers, since such workers are often recent immigrants and afraid of losing their jobs if they complain.  Moreover, the great majority of these workers are female.

In June of 2019, the New Jersey legislature addressed the issue of hospitality worker safety by enacting The Panic Device Law (the “PDL”), effective January of 2020.  The PDL requires any hotel, inn, motel, or similar business with at least 100 guest rooms to provide its housekeeping and room service employees with a panic device, at no cost to the employees.  The Law defines “panic device” as a two-way radio or other electronic device that allows an employee to contact a security guard or other employee for help in the event of a crime, assault or harassment, or the threat of the same.

Who Is Covered

The PDL applies to both full- and part-time employees, as well as contractors and subcontractors, who perform housekeeping and room service.  Further, because the hospitality industry relies so heavily upon staffing agencies for its employee pool, the Law defines “employer” broadly to include “any manager who directs or is responsible for workers retained through a temporary staffing agency.”

Additional Duties for Employers

Among other things, the PDL subjects hotel employers to:

Duty to Respond: When a covered employee activates her panic device, the employer is obligated to send a staff member to the employee’s physical location to provide assistance.

Record-Keeping Duties: The PDL mandates that employers keep records of accusations against hotel guests for violence, sexual assault or harassment, or other inappropriate conduct toward a hotel employee.  Such records must be kept for five years from the date of the reported incident or incidents.

Duty to Take Additional Protective Measures on Employees’ Behalf:  The employer must notify covered employees of the presence and location of any individual on the hotel’s list of accused guests.  Moreover, the employer must reassign any employee who activated a panic device to work away from the guest room in question for the entirety of the guest’s stay.  For the remaining employees, the employer must allow them to work in pairs in the guest’s room, or to decline to work in the guest’s room altogether.

As you might guess, the employer is under a legal duty to report any alleged crime by a guest to law enforcement.  If a guest is convicted of a crime as a result of the use of a panic device, the hotel may deny the guest accommodations.

Anti-Retaliation Provision

Perhaps most importantly, the PDL prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action against covered employees who activate and use the panic device.  This protection is aimed at encouraging housekeeping and room service workers to report offending guest conduct without fearing that they will be disciplined or terminated as a result.

Penalties

Employers who violate the PDL may be fined $5,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for each subsequent offense.

In Sum

The PDL aspires to be an effective first step in securing the safety and well-being of some of our most vulnerable workers.  In being the first state to enact a panic device law, New Jersey is at the forefront of a growing trend towards preventing widespread harassment and abuse in the hospitality industry generally.

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