Hotel worker bills get fine-tuned, continue to move forward

Last Thursday the Council’s Workers’ Rights committee finished amending three of the four hotel workers’ protection bills, co-sponsored by Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez to replace Initiative 124.

(update 9/9: a couple of corrections below based upon feedback from Council staff. My apologies; several of the amendments weren’t published in advance of the meeting so it was challenging to follow along)

The legally-questionable bill requiring hotels to pay for healthcare for hotel employees was not taken up; Mosqueda said that it was still being worked on and would be presented this coming Thursday.  The other three bills each had a substitute version adopted that incorporated several minor amendments and a few more substantive changes. It’s clear, however, that Gonzalez and Mosqueda have been working hard to take and incorporate feedback from the business community, as well as labor interests and other advocates such as the ACLU in order to arrive at a reasonable compromise.

Council Bill 119556, which relates to retention of employees when a hotel changes hands, had four changes, two related to the inclusion of “ancillary businesses” within the scope of the ordinance. The definition of “ancillary businesses” was narrowed so as to sweep up fewer businesses unintentionally. Now it includes:

  • food and beverage businesses that either operate from a physical location within a hotel, have direct interior access to the hotel, or both abut the hotel and are an amenity to the hotel guests;
  • businesses that contract with the hotel to provide guest lodging, housekeeping, room service, laundry, parking, events, conventions, or other services related to the hotel’s core function.

(updated) Now it includes “any business that (1) routinely contracts with the hotel for services in conjunction with the hotel’s purpose; (2) leases or sublets space at the site of the hotel for services in conjunction with the hotel’s purpose; or (3) provides food and beverages, to hotel guests and to the public, with an entrance within the hotel premises.”

There continued to be debate about whether this is the right set of ancillary businesses to include. Council member Harrell still questioned whether ancillary businesses should be included at all. Council member Baghsaw worried that the definition would still catch many unintended service companies, such as a window washing service that the hotel contracts with. Mosqueda, Gonzalez and Council staff noted that state agencies have rulemaking examples that could be incorporated to clarify the intent (including that maintenance services such as window-washing are not related to the hotel’s core function).

The bill was also modified to defer the effective date for ancillary businesses with less than 250 employees until July 1, 2025.

The rules around record retention were modified to give the Office of Labor Standards (OLS) room to fine-tune the exact records that hotels must keep. And the mechanics of how to distribute any fines collected were loosened to give OLS flexibility to split the money between the hotel workers affected and the department’s ongoing enforcement costs.

Council bill 119554, which provides extra protections for housekeepers from injuries due to excessive workload, received clarifications to when the triple-time rule applies, and a change to the threshold itself. As the amended bill now reads, if a housekeeper cleans more than 4500 square feet, then the time spent cleaning rooms above the 4500 SF limit is paid at triple the normal rate. This represents two changes from the original bill, which said that if a shift exceeds 5000 square feet, then the hours for the entire shift are paid at triple the usual rate.

The change from 5000 square feet to 4500, proposed by Gonzalez, took some explaining. According to a study of hotel workers, the average hotel room is 330 square feet, and a housekeeper typically cleans 13-15 rooms in a shift. 13 rooms is 4,290 square feet; 14 is 4,620; 15 is 4,950. The original 5000 figure was chosen by Mosqueda to be just above the high-water mark for a typical shift. However, Gonzalez pointed out that the goal of the bill isn’t to increase overtime pay for housekeepers, but to address the high injury rate of housekeepers due to excessive workload by setting a threshold that creates a safer work environment (and creates a strong disincentive to exceeding it). She cited a 2010 study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, of occupational disparities in the U.S. hotel industry that shows the excessively high injury rate for housekeepers today under the typical workload — according to Gonzalez, higher than both coal mining and building construction. Gonzalez and Mosqueda also noted that the two cities who recently enacted similar legislation (Long Beach and Oakland) set their threshold at 4,000 square feet, and than generally speaking housekeepers under-report injuries.

The bill was also modified to change the effective date to July 1, 2020 to allow OLS time for rulemaking.

Council bill 199557, which requires hotels to provide additional protections for hotel workers such as panic buttons and defines the hotel’s responsibilities when a hotel worker accuses a guest of violent or harassing behavior, saw several changes:

  • The same definition of “ancillary businesses” used in the first bill was also adopted here.
  • (updated) Businesses with less than 50 employees worldwide are exempted.
  • Hotels are responsible for supplying panic buttons to the employees of ancillary businesses covered by the ordinance (though employees are not required to carry them). The hotel is also responsible for responding to the panic buttons when used by employees of ancillary businesses. Employers are prohibited from taking adverse actions against their employees for using the panic buttons.
  • While the bill specifies that the rules for dealing with guests who harass or attack hotel workers must be posted on the sign on the inside of the door to each guest room, that doesn’t need to occur until the next time the signs are regularly replaced.
  • OLS may define alternative ways for hotels to meet the requirement of giving guests information about the employee harassment policies other than giving them a copy at check-in. This becomes essential as more hotels allow guests to check in online and use their phones as electronic keys to their guest rooms, so they may never come in contact with a hotel employee when they arrive at the hotel.
  • The hotel’s responsibilities to both guests and to its employees when an accusation of harassment to violent attack is made, were clarified and fine-tuned. For instance, while the hotel still must discontinue housekeeping and room-service in the room for the remainder of the guest’s stay, the hotel is still allowed to do a safety/wellness check in the guest room after the allegation has been made.
  • There were updates to the requirement for the employer to give the employee 16 hours of paid time to consult with an advocate and other professionals after an assault or harassment incident. Now the employee may take up to 14 days to use those 16 hours of paid time (up form 7 days), but the employee must provide reasonable notification to the employer of when he or she intends to use those hours (so the employee can’t just no-show at work).
  • There was some fine-tuning of the records-retention rules, focusing the employer’s responsibilities on documenting its response to the allegation, and not on identifying the guest accused.

While the amendments were adopted for all three bills, none of the bills were voted out of committee. That will likely happen this Thursday, when the healthcare bill is also taken up, and all four bills will be sent as a package to the full City Council for final approval on Monday, September 16th.

At that point, since it has been more than two years since the passage of Initiative 124, the bills will replace I-124 in the Seattle Municipal Code. That will also moot the current legal challenge to I-124, which is scheduled for oral arguments in front of the state Supreme Court on September 17th. Depending on how the healthcare bill looks in its final form, however, a separate challenge to the healthcare provision in I-124 will likely be re-targeted at that bill.

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