United States: Phone, Wallet, Keys . . . Panic Button? Hotel Employee Panic Device Bill Advanced To New Jersey Senate For Further Consideration

Seyfarth Synopsis: On December 3, 2018, the New Jersey Senate Labor Committee unanimously advanced a bill that would require covered hotels to provide "panic devices" to certain employees. New Jersey joins the increasing number of jurisdictions considering or enacting this form of anti-sexual harassment legislation.

Background

In September, two state New Jersey state senators introduced S2896 in an effort to protect "hotel employees from sexual assault and other dangerous working conditions." As amended by the New Jersey Senate Labor Committee, the bill is now before the full Senate for consideration. Notably, the New Jersey bill would impose requirements similar to those found in the recently enacted Seattle and Chicago hotel panic button mandates. (For more information on the Chicago mandate, please see our previous post here.)

Here are some of the highlights from the New Jersey bill:

  • Covered Hotels: The mandate would apply to hotels and similar establishments that contain 25 or more guest rooms.
  • Obligation to Provide a Panic Device: Covered hotels would be required to provide a "panic device" to each hotel employee who, without others, performs housekeeping or room service duties in guest rooms, at no cost to the employee.

    • Panic Device: The bill defines "panic device" as a two-way radio or other electronic device that can be kept on the employee's person and used to summon immediate on scene assistance from an appropriate hotel staff member. Other mandates under consideration or in effect contemplate the use of a "button."
  • Employee's Use: Under the proposal, an employee may use the device when the employee "reasonably believes" that there is an ongoing crime, immediate threat of assault or harassment, or other emergency in the employee's presence. While awaiting assistance, the employee may stop work and leave the area of perceived danger. An employee who does so would be protected from adverse employment action by the bill's anti-retaliation provision.
  • Employer Obligations: Beyond promptly responding to the employee's location, once the device is triggered, covered hotels' obligations include keeping records of accusations and a list of accused guests for five years, reporting any incident to appropriate law enforcement and cooperating with any investigation, and immediately reassigning the aggrieved employee to an area away from the accused guest's room, while providing others the option to service the room with a partner or not service the room, for the remainder of the guest's stay.
    • Guest Conviction: In the event that an accused guest is criminally convicted in connection with an incident brought to the hotel's attention, the bill would require covered hotels to refuse occupancy for at least three years from the date of the incident.
  • Notice to Employees: The bill would require covered hotels to educate employees about use of the panic device and their rights should they do so and to encourage employees to use the device when appropriate.
  • Notice to Guests: Covered hotels would be required to notify guests of the panic devices by either requiring acknowledgement of the policy upon check in or prominently displaying a sign on the interior side of guest room doors detailing the panic device policy.

New Jersey's Requirements Compared To Other Jurisdictions

The New Jersey bill contains notable differences as compared to other mandates now in effect. For example, the Chicago ordinance applies to hotels accommodating seven or more guests. Moreover, that ordinance requires a detailed written anti-sexual harassment policy providing aggrieved employees with, among other things, paid time off for certain reasons relating to guest misconduct, and that posters be displayed in multiple languages in areas where employees can reasonably be expected to see them. Chicago also does not provide circumstances under which an accused guest must be denied occupancy. Like Chicago's ordinance, Seattle's also allows paid time off to aggrieved employees.

Further unlike New Jersey, where an aggrieved employee alleges assault or sexual misconduct under penalty of perjury, covered hotels in Seattle are prohibited from allowing the accused guest to return for at least three years from the incident (i.e., whether or not the guest is convicted of a crime). Another key distinction is that Seattle hotels need only report allegations of guest misconduct and cooperate in investigations if consented to by the employee. Additionally, non-complaining employees assigned to an accused guest's room need only be warned of the accused's presence and advised to proceed with caution.

More generally similar measures have passed or are under consideration in Miami Beach, FL, Long Beach, CA and Oakland, CA. Notably, a California statewide mandate failed in committee, in part due to complaints of expansive employee accommodations. Nevertheless, some hotels have considered implementing panic device systems regardless of legal obligation.

Employer Takeaways

While questions about the burden and expense of compliance and the general panic device landscape may be answered over time, it is clear that this type of legislation has become a hot topic among state and local legislatures. The amended bill now before the New Jersey Senate will likely go through another round of committee review and possible amendments before the full Senate votes on the bill. The original bill was also introduced in the New Jersey Assembly in September, but remains pending in committee. As such, questions about the substance and general fate of the New Jersey mandate remain outstanding.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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