Strauss-Kahn case raises question: How safe are hotel employees?

Violent crimes against hotel employees, as is alleged in the Strauss-Kahn case, are rare, but they do take place. Industry experts say protecting staff and making them feel safe is a priority.

By , Staff writer

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    The French flag hangs over the Sofitel hotel Sunday, in New York, where International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was staying Saturday and is accused of an alleged assault involving a maid. The events raise questions about hotel employee safety industry-wide.
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Every hotel counts on its housekeeping staff.

They strip the sheets after a guest leaves, clean the tub and toilet daily, vacuum the room, and then get to do it all over – again and again – for anywhere from $12 to $15 per hour.

Now, in the wake of the allegations that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, sexually assaulted a housekeeper at the Sofitel Hotel, there is a new focus on these essential employees.

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How safe are they? Do hotels report attacks on their staff or try to cover up the bad publicity?

Lawyers and experts involved with the hospitality industry say sexual harassment is taken seriously. One of the main reasons: If the hotel staff does not feel safe, they are not likely to be happy – no matter how much they get paid. Luxury hotels especially do not want the reputation of being unsafe or condoning attacks on their staff. And most hotels are not afraid to tell guests who are involved in inappropriate behavior to pack their bags and leave.

“Hotel management has an obligation to protect the employees,” says Roy Maize, director of the Restaurant, Hotel and Meetings program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a former hotel Human Resources manager. “If there is a criminal offense they would be obligated to take action.”

Although crimes in hotels are relatively rare, they do take place. Between 2004 and 2008, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports there were on average 7,840 violent crimes a year in hotels or motels. This is only 0.1 percent of all violent crimes.

But, it’s not clear from the statistics how many of those crimes were committed against hotel or motel employees.

In the past, some of the violent crimes, such as rape, can be difficult for prosecutors to try, mainly because it can often be a matter of “he says, she says.”

In 2004, prosecutors dropped rape charges against basketball star Kobe Bryant after the alleged victim, a hotel employee, decided not to testify. The judge had ruled that Mr. Bryant’s lawyers could question the employee about her sexual behavior in days leading up to the alleged incident, which took place in his hotel room.

In the case of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, he is alleged to have attacked the housekeeper after he emerged nude from the bathroom. He is alleged to have then attempted to rape the victim, followed by an attempt to force her to perform oral sex.

His lawyers maintain their client is innocent. In some press accounts, there are implications of consensual sex. In others, there are reports Strauss-Kahn was at lunch when the attack was alleged.

“Both sides will start to look for corroborative evidence,” says Larry Cunningham, associate dean of the St. John’s School of Law in New York.

For example, he says the New York Police Department might have looked for DNA evidence under the alleged victim’s fingernails or looked for scratch marks on Strauss-Kahn, who has been examined by the police.

“In addition, they would be interviewing people who saw the alleged victim right afterwards. What was her demeanor? Was she calm and collected or agitated and upset?” says Mr. Cunningham.

However, he points out that DNA under a victim’s nails may have gotten there through consensual sex.

“It is way too premature to talk about this case when you don’t know the forensic evidence to evaluate the strength of the prosecutors’ case,” he says.

Most hotels have some kind of sexual harassment training, says Celeste Yeager, who is vice chair of the Hospitality Team at the Dallas law firm, Gardere Wynne Sewell.

“It’s not just sexual harassment by co-workers, but it can be for vendors or guests,” says Ms. Yeager. “There can be multiple avenues to report it so you feel comfortable telling what happened in your workplace.”

She says many hotels train their staffs not to enter a room if a guest is present and is not properly dressed. In addition, she says, many hotels supply their employees with door stops so they can prop the door open so the room is open to the hallway.

Yeager says hotels encourage employees to report incidents. “If the staff is fearful about going into rooms, then you don’t have a great staff,” she says. “You have to keep your staff happy for a high level of guest service.”

At the same time, the hotel has to protect the privacy of the guest, says Maize. “Typically, the room is the guest’s property,” he says.

A normal protocol is for the housekeeper to knock on the door and announce they are outside. If there is no answer, they are taught to do it again. “It would be very rare for them to enter and not announce who they were,” he says.

However, he says if someone were in the shower, it’s possible they did not hear anyone knocking at the door.

He recalls working in Pennsylvania at a hotel and knocking on a door. No one answered and he let himself in. “There was someone in the room,” he recalls. “You just hope it does not happen and that the people answer you when you knock.”

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