FOLLOWING THE AFTERMATH OF A HOTEL WORKER BEING SEXUALLY ASSAULTED BY A GUEST, NEW JERSEY BECOMES THE FIRST STATE TO REQUIRE HOTEL WORKERS BE PROVIDED WITH PANIC BUTTONS

Recognizing the unique vulnerability of hotel housekeeping and room service employees who often work alone while cleaning guests’ rooms, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law this month a requirement that ensures hotels with over 100 guest rooms provide its employees with panic button devices to protect them when confronted with sexual assault and harassment situations. This new law was proposed in the aftermath of the sexual assault of a 51-year old room cleaner in Bally’s Hotel and Casino in 2018, which sparked outrage among similarly situated workers throughout the state who feared for their safety. In enacting this law, which will take effect in January 2020, New Jersey becomes the first state to require such protection for its employees.

The new law additionally recognizes that hotel employees who are often recent immigrants who speak little English and therefore may feel intimidated to report inappropriate or criminal conduct for fear of retaliation from their employers. The public policy goals of this legislation are in line with existing pro-employee rights laws in effect in our state such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

The LAD provides a significant level of protection to New Jersey workers by prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees for complaining about harassment or discrimination. N.J.S.A., 10:5-12(d). Under the LAD, it is an unlawful practice “for any person to take reprisals against any person because that person has opposed any practices or acts forbidden under this act.” Id. The panic button legislation adds an additional layer of protection for hotel service employees underscoring the fact that hotel employers had been failing to adequately address these workers’ safety concerns.

Although sexual harassment is pervasive in all career fields, according to the Center for American Progress such claims are especially rampant in the accommodations and food services industries. Large hotel chains throughout the nation like Marriot and Hilton, have already taken note of the panic button legislation and are considering implementing this safety device at their hotel and resort properties. Further, several large cities, such as New York and Chicago, already require panic buttons in hotels.
Not only does the new law require hotels to provide employees with panic button devices, but employers are required to develop a safety program for their staff to encourage workplace safety. One of the ways this can be done in compliance with the legislation is through the placement of handouts educating hotel employees regarding the risks at work and their rights should they need to activate it. It is essential for employees to understand their rights in regard to this new system and encourage its use. Hotel employers who violate this law will be subject to a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.

When implemented, these panic button devices would allow employees to have emergency contact via a two-way radio or other electronic device that is kept on the employee’s person when the employee is in a guest room. The device would allow an employee to quickly communicate with others if the employee reasonably feels that there is “an ongoing crime, or immediate threat of assault or harassment, or other emergency in the employee’s presence.” In a statement made supporting the law, State Senator Linda Greenstein said, “This law will give these [hotel] employees a sense of safety most of us take for granted in our places of work and will empower them to protect themselves when in danger.”

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against their employees for reporting harassment and discriminatory conduct under the LAD. If you believe you have been unlawfully retaliated against by an employer for reporting such conduct, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help in assessing whether you have an actionable claim against your employer. At Mashel Law, LLC, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.