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Minnesota’s largest hospitality union wants hotels and motels to equip its workers with panic buttons so they can buzz security if they feel unsafe while tidying up rooms, cleaning the pool or delivering room service.

“We’ve had guests that get out of hand and get angry at something. We did have a worker who was physically assaulted last week,” said Christa Mello, who heads UNITE HERE Local 17 representing 1,600 hospitality workers. The union is seeking panic buttons along with higher wages as its leaders negotiate contracts this summer.

Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake launched a panic button system in February, and similar plans are taking shape elsewhere. The Radisson Blu at Mall of America is running a pilot program this summer to explore options for Radisson hotels, and the owner of the Best Western Normandy in downtown Minneapolis said he thinks they will be operational by year’s end.

Few Minnesota hotels appear to use panic buttons. Liz Rammer, president of Hospitality Minnesota and executive vice president of the Minnesota Hotel and Lodging Association, said she wasn’t aware of any large hotels that do.

But Rammer said the industry is on board, despite issues of cost and technology. Small, independent hotels may decide against using them: “This is a not-inexpensive item either, so they have to plan ahead,” she said.

Safety concerns are compounded because hotel workers, especially housekeepers, are mostly women. Many speak limited English and often are put in dicey situations where they’re mistreated, sexually harassed or even assaulted. Many times it’s someone in the room who’s naked or making lewd gestures, Mello said.

Workers’ safety is increasingly top of mind for lodging companies.

Seventeen hotel chains, including industry giants like Hilton and Hyatt, pledged last fall to invest in panic buttons with the goal of national implementation by 2020. Some large cities, including Chicago and Seattle, have passed ordinances requiring hotels to have them (though Seattle’s is being challenged in court). Panic buttons are already commonplace in New York City and Washington.

The buttons, also called “employee safety devices,” can be worn on a lanyard or as a pin or carried in a pocket. They vary in design; the simplest ones may just emit a loud noise, while more advanced models call hotel security or 911. Using GPS-like technology, they can pinpoint the floor or room where an employee is and track their movements.

“Any time you have an employee who is one-on-one, so they’re alone with other people, there are risks involved,” said Jennifer Myers, spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) based in Washington, D.C. “It is about preventing assault or other personal attacks, but it’s also just a broader safety and security issue.”

Several hotel workers said last week that panic buttons can’t come soon enough, though they have questions about how they will work.

Erika Robles, a housekeeper at the Normandy, said through a translator that she doesn’t feel safe at work. One of her co-workers was cleaning a room when it was robbed by a stranger, she said, and another was hugged and handed money by a drunken guest while alone with him. One co-worker found a man hiding in a bathtub and ran away when he tried to pull her in, she said.

If someone looks suspicious, Robles said, she locks herself in a room or uses a room phone to call security.

“The problem is, if I call, they’re not always there to answer right away,” she said.

‘You don’t get used to it’

Last September, the CEOs of five of the nation’s largest hotel companies — Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Wyndham and IHG — announced their “Five-Star Promise,” a pledge to increase safety measures for hotel workers in collaboration with the AHLA.

A dozen other hotel companies also took the pledge, which includes adding panic buttons by 2020 and implementing an anti-sexual harassment policy and sexual harassment training.

The association can’t require its members to implement panic buttons, Myers said. Every chain or hotel will likely do things differently based on staffing, the hotel’s layout and its building materials, which affect Wi-Fi signals.

Normandy owner Mike Noble said larger hotels have an advantage when putting panic buttons into operation.

“If you have an 800-room hotel, there’s scale there to implement expensive systems that you don’t have when you’re an 80-room property,” he said, adding that the Normandy has 200 rooms.

Noble said that using panic buttons is “common sense” and believes they will become universal. But he said he objects to the suggestion that hotels are hazardous places to work, citing the Normandy’s video cameras, night security and limited number of entries.

He said that he would have seen reports for the incidents Robles described if they had occurred, though he acknowledged that employees first would have to report them.

Minnesota-based Radisson Hotel Group officials are midway through the company’s pilot project at the Radisson Blu in Bloomington and preparing to choose a panic button vendor, said Robert Muehlberg, director of safety and security for the Americas. The devices afford workers peace of mind, he said.

“We’re looking at a system that we can … grow with or expand upon, depending on the needs of that hotel,” he said.

Radisson, which has implemented panic buttons in Chicago, aims to have the devices in all the hotels it owns or manages by March 2020, Muehlberg said.

He estimated the initial cost per hotel at $30,000 to $70,000. Radisson franchises not owned by the company may choose what they want to do, he said, as long as they abide by local laws.

A panic button would have been welcomed 15 years ago by Rosa Valenzuela, senior vice president of Local 17, when a frightening incident caused her to switch from nights to days while working at a northeast Minneapolis hotel.

One evening, a 30-something man entered the lobby and asked to use the bathroom, Valenzuela said. When he spotted her name tag, he said he was there to meet “Rosa” and told her how beautiful she was. He began touching his private parts and followed her into an employees-only area, where he was stopped by a co-worker.

He showed up again a year later, when he asked to meet with her. She locked herself in a room and “was freaking out,” she said.

“You don’t get used to [it],” Valenzuela said. “I was so scared every single night, every single day.”