Maids in Irvine have been calling out what they say are nightmare working conditions and sexual harassment they’ve faced from guests – including people exposing themselves or trying to grab them.  

“Women are still having to face men without their clothes as they’re trying to clean a room. That’s absurd. No one should have to go through that,” Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said during last Tuesday’s council meeting.

“The guest is always right in the hotel industry and therefore we have seen a problem that has lasted for so long,” said Unite Here local 11 co-president Ada Briceño during public comment.

The union has been pushing for housekeeper protections and represents 32,00 hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona.

“The workers are telling you exactly what they need so they’re not harassed, they’re not fondled, they’re not raped in hotel rooms,” Briceño said, who’s also chair of the Democratic party of OC.  

Now the city is intervening. 

Irvine City Council Members narrowly voted 3-2 last Tuesday to adopt a new ordinance geared at protecting hotel workers and improving their working conditions – becoming the first city in Orange County to approve such a law pending a second reading.

If finalized, the part of the law protecting hotel workers from harassment goes into effect on November 24, and the portion limiting the total rooms they’re required to clean goes into effect in April 2023. 

The city has been ranked as the safest city of its size for the 17th year in a row in terms of violent crime according to FBI data.

Khan also criticized the working conditions. 

“Some of these rooms are really filthy and I’ve heard the stories of our workers that work countless hours, that are changing the sheets, moving the beds, moving the chairs, they’re scrubbing the bathrooms, and I want to be sure that we are being fair to them,” she said. 

Despite this, she said the ordinance didn’t go far enough to protect housekeepers.

“I have a feeling that we’ll be back six to eight months later talking about this again.”

Councilmen Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo were the dissenting votes, with Kuo saying that he had a series of issues with it. 

“I think to combine these two issues, I don’t think that they really should be combined. One has to do with safety, and one doesn’t,” Kuo said at the meeting. “I’m somewhat at a loss because there are portions I think are good, there are portions that aren’t good enough.” 

The vote comes after two hotel workers spoke out to the Voice of OC about their experience working in the industry and the constant sexual harassment they have faced from guests.

[Read: Housekeepers’ Hellish Hotel Horrors: Could A Proposed Irvine Ordinance Protect Maids?]

The maids candidly told reporters guests have exposed themselves to them while they try to work and have grabbed them inappropriately. They asked that their names not be used in order to avoid retribution and not be fired from a job they need.

“The guests look at us and treat us like we’re prostitutes but we’re not prostitutes we’re only trying to fight to better the lives of our children,” one maid said in an interview in Spanish last week.

Many workers aren’t always comfortable speaking out.

It’s not just in Irvine where workers are reporting stories like these. 

Unite Here 1, Chicago’s hospitality union, published a survey in 2016 of 500 women working in Chicago hotels and casinos called Hands Off, Pants On.

The survey found that 58% of hotel workers have faced sexual harrassment from guests and that 49% of housekeepers surveyed have had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked.

Maids at Tuesday’s meeting said they felt they weren’t fairly compensated for the work they’re doing and urged the council to pass the ordinance.

The new law requires that hotel workers be issued panic buttons in the event of harassment, with on site security receiving those notifications so they can immediately respond, along with giving the employee time off to report the harassment to the police or to seek counseling. 

The second part of the law limits the total number of rooms that hotel employees are required to clean on their shift, depending on the size of the hotel. If they exceed that limit, the worker’s income is doubled for that entire shift. 

While hoteliers at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the ordinance requiring panic buttons and other safety measures, with many saying they already had done so, they had concerns about the limits on how many rooms workers were expected to clean in a shift.

“We 100% support worker protections,” said Bryan Starr, CEO of the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce, in a Wednesday phone interview. “Our main concern was just the timing of it. It came very quickly. There was no stakeholder process and that’s unusual for the city.”

He also said there is a workforce shortage and that hotels are having a hard time recruiting maids.

That concern picked up attention from beyond just Irvine, with the California Hotel and Lodging Association writing to the city council asking for them to hold off adopting any new rules. 

“We anticipate a monumental impact on scheduling and workforce management at a time when our employees are asking for greater flexibility,” wrote Lynn Mohrfield, CEO of the association, in a letter to the city council. “If Irvine hotels can’t operate at or near our capacity, it will stymie our recovery and significantly impact the City’s Transient Occupancy Tax revenues.” 

She also asked the council to ignore “false narratives,” put forward by proponents of the ordinance.

Over three dozen people spoke at the city council meeting, split between workers asking for protection and hotel managers who said the issue needed more discussion before approval.

While Irvine is the first city in OC to adopt such a law, other cities in Southern California and across the country in places like Chicago have already passed similar laws.

And Laguna Beach may be the next Orange County city to follow their lead.

Laguna Beach voters this November will decide on Measure S which would implement similar protections for hotel workers as well as make minimum wage for hotel workers in the city $18 an hour.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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