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Seattle hotel workers seek protection with Initiative 124

An initiative before voters in Seattle this November would put a panic button in every hotel worker’s hand.

It’s one of a series of protections for a potentially vulnerable group of workers. They do heavy work, often alone. They are mostly women, and many of them are immigrants learning English, making them a voice that can be hard to hear.

Maria Estrada likes the panic button to summon help in a threatening situation. But she's even more interested in the provisions that help injured workers.

“About a year and a half ago I got a foot injured,” Estrada said through a translator. “I also required to have some surgery on my foot, and I was off work for 12 months.”

Estrada works at the Hilton - one of the few union hotels in the city.

Most of the hotel workers surveyed by initiative-backer Puget Sound Sage said they had been injured while working.

Many of them said their work caused daily pain.

Initiative 124 attempts to limit this workload, by holding a worker's daily room cleanings to 5,000 square feet. Workers could do more, but hotels would have to pay them time and a half.

The hotels say they can see where this is going. “Despite the headline that this is really about protecting workers, that’s not really what this is about at all,” said Jenne Oxford, president of the Seattle Hotel Association. “I think there is a movement in the city where the union is fighting to gain membership. They’re trying to make it really difficult for hotel owners to operate in the city and make it easier for them to operate if they organize.”

That's because much of the proposed legislation doesn't apply if workers and hotels sign a collective agreement instead. Unite Here Local 8, which represents hotel workers, backs the initiative.

“We’ve seen the complete gutting of unions in this country, particularly in the private sector,” said Abby Lawlor, who works for the union. She said as unions have declined, worker protections have slipped. Lawlor said the initiative will “put those standards back in place but still give workers the opportunity where they have a union and have those protections to negotiate.”

The hotels say they already have ways to protect workers and limit their workloads. Oxford also says it doesn’t limit hotel room cleaning by square footage. “You can have someone cleaning 5,000 square feet and every room has two beds [instead of only one]. That’s twice as much work.”

For many hotel workers, this initiative is really about protecting themselves from injury and overwork. “I never think about housekeeping, how hard it is, until I taking this job,” said Yan Deng, who works at the Hilton.

“We need a lot of support, because first of all it’s a really, really hard job,” said Estrada.