Sexual harassment, exploitation and GDPR compliance took center stage during the first day of the Hospitality Law Conference, where legal and hotel industry experts addressed the current state of these issues and what hoteliers can do to address them.
HOUSTON—Speakers at this year’s Hospitality Law Conference shed light on a number of pressing legal issues facing the hotel industry, explaining where the industry stands now and what actions hoteliers can take.
Though the number of workplace sexual harassment claims made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not increased so far in 2018, said Andria Ryan, partner at Fisher Phillips, insurance companies are reporting an increasing number of demand letters from their clients. It’s likely there will be more claims coming through, she said during her presentation “Harassment in the hospitality Industry—how to avoid being the next #MeToo.”
This is the time to stand back and look at the culture, she said.
“I’ve been doing defense work and handling sexual harassment cases for 30 years,” she said. “You would think with the training and focus on harassment over the last 30 years, there would be some change in that. … It is a consistent problem in the workforce.”
In a hospitality survey conducted by the Huffington Post in 2015, which Ryan said she chose because it came before the Harvey Weinstein scandals, of the 2,235 female employees surveyed, one third of the respondents said they experience sexual harassment at work. In a Unite Here Local 1 survey of 500 female hotel and casino employees in April 2016 in Chicago, 58% of hotel workers reported being sexually harassed by a guest. Only 33% of those reported the harassment to a supervisor, she said, and only 19% said they had been trained how to handle harassment by guests.
The spa industry gets it, she said, as they train employees what to do and say if a guest says or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. They learn when to leave the room and when to report a problem, she said. The hotel industry rarely does that with other employees, she said.
Housekeepers are vulnerable employees, she said, but bartenders and servers, as well as foreign workers and younger employees, are especially vulnerable too.
Ryan said even just dusting off the company policy on sexual harassment to review it and make even minor changes communicates to employees that their employers are paying attention.
“I think that’s an important move today,” she said.
Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry that is second only to the drug industry, said Francesca Ippolito-Craven, shareholder at Kubicki Draper during her presentation “Reservation for exploitation: recognizing, preventing and confronting human trafficking in the hospitality industry.” Hotels and motels are the most common venue for this, she said.
“Traffickers take advantage of hotels because of the privacy they afford,” she said. “They have the opportunity to operate discretely because the staff and guests don’t often know the signs of trafficking.”
Perpetrators of sex trafficking often force their victims to stay in a hotel where the customers come to them, she said. They advertise online for sexual services at particular hotels, she said, and it often happens without the hotel staff’s knowledge.
Labor traffickers force victims to work for little or no pay, often in farming, manufacturing and even in hospitality, she said. Traffickers sometimes post as a temporary staffing agency that provides labor for housekeeping and other departments, she said, and a third party might apply for a job on behalf of the victims and require paychecks be submitted to them.
Victims of trafficking are now pursuing criminal and civil liability against owners and managers of hotels and motels, she said. Federal statutes provide both civil and criminal remedies to allow the victim to recover from whoever knowingly benefits from tracking and knew or should have known it was taking place, she said.
“It’s important for hotels and motels to recognize, prevent and confront human trafficking,” she said.
The company should formally adopt and implement a trafficking policy, Ippolito-Craven said. Hotels should post warning signs in areas that are conspicuous to employees, she said. Training should involve teaching employees about the indicators of trafficking so they know what to look for and how to respond, she said. Companies need a plan in place to report incidents, she said.
There are some warning signs, she said. Employees need to watch for indicators like people loitering in hallways, guests requesting rooms near exits or with windows overlooking the parking lot, guests who appear confused or disoriented, young children who don’t seem to know or appear uncomfortable with the adults near them and numerous visitors going to a particular room, she said.
In the United States, any hotel that does business in the European Union, hosts guests who booked in the EU or has a website that caters to people in the EU and its member states have to adhere to the laws of the General Data Protection Regulation, said Hans-Josef Vogel, partner at Beiten Burkhardt, during “How EU data protection impacts your business.”
The GDPR has been on the books since 2016, he said, which would have been the time to set up a dedicated group of people to look at their company’s data processing and determine which data originates from Europe. There are people waiting to send out letters regarding violations of data protection principles, he said, so not taking any action is going to become expensive.
Hoteliers will need to tell EU data subjects who are guests at their hotels where their data is collected, how it’s being used and justify it as being necessary to complete a contract, he said. Hoteliers will need the data subject’s consent to collect the data and they must delete the guests’ data upon request.
Another aspect of the GDPR is that the EU requires that data subjects’ personal information be portable, Vogel said.
“If Facebook falls out of fashion, what will you do with that Facebook information?” he asked. “You have the right to ask Facebook to gather the data and send it to the next big thing.”
Imagine a guest that has been loyal to a brand for years goes to another brand and offers their years of data to another brand, he said, which would likely offer some freebies in exchange.
“You have to put that data into a readable format,” he said.