May 24, 2011 / 6:49 PM / in 6 years

Hotel workers need panic buttons: New York lawmaker

<p>People pass by the Sofitel hotel after IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged on Sunday with sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid, May 15, 2011. REUTERS/Chip East</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York hotel workers would have electronic “panic buttons” under a new bill proposed after then-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid.

“To my knowledge this would be the first in the nation,” Democratic Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who represents the New York City Borough of Queens, said by telephone on Tuesday.

Lancman, who chairs the Assembly subcommittee on workplace safety, said attacks on hotel maids and housekeepers were relatively common although he had no data to support that.

“Unfortunately, a lot of men think that when they are away from home the normal rules of social conduct don’t apply, and a young woman entering a hotel room, particularly if she looks like an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t have the means to report (an assault) -- they think she’s fair game,” he said.

Strauss-Kahn faces charges of sexual assault and attempting to rape a housekeeper at the Sofitel hotel in New York on May 14. He is being held in an apartment in Manhattan under armed guard after being freed on bail on Friday.

Strauss-Kahn has denied the charges but has resigned as managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Hotel workers needing urgent help could use the panic buttons to contact the hotel’s front desk or its security and then police could be called if necessary, Lancman said.

Other industries, including utilities and industrial firms, already use such devices to protect workers who may be in remote locations.

“This reasonable proposal would ensure that thousands of hotel workers are not put at unnecessary risk,” said Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council.

In 2009, 100 hotel maids were assaulted -- 70 by people, 30 by animals -- according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But assaults may be undercounted, experts say, since workers may fear being sacked and employers, mindful of insurance, might not want to report assaults that are not severe.

Hotel companies are examining security protocols following the incident, industry executives said on Tuesday.

“It’s a wake-up call, any time you get any incident like this,” said Strategic Hotels and Resorts Inc chief executive Laurence Geller at the Reuters Global Luxury and Fashion Summit in New York.

Marriott International Inc is also revisiting its protocols to make sure they are “reasonably good,” said Arne Sorenson, the hotel operator’s chief operating officer.

“This is still a fairly rare and exceptional event, thankfully,” said Sorenson, whose company also owns the upscale Ritz Carlton hotel brand.

Sorenson ruled out putting video cameras in guest rooms.

Geller, who has worked in the hotel business for over 40 years, said, “Physical abuse has always been a problem in hotels” and that anyone intent on an attack could succeed.

“Am I going to say whether or not there’ll be panic buttons with maids to have or whether there’ll be things like that? It’s not illogical,” he said.

To become law, the bill would have to be enacted by the assembly and the state senate and then signed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Spokesmen for the governor and the leaders of the two legislative chambers had no immediate comment.

Reporting by Joan Gralla and Martinne Geller; Additional reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Mark Egan and Jerry Norton

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