Marcos Bretón

She was trying to clean the hotel room. But the naked man had other plans

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2017.
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2017. AP

At a downtown Sacramento hotel this past December, Jenny Amaya was doing her job as a housekeeper when she entered a room she thought was empty but instead was occupied by a man who stood in front of her, completely naked, as if he had been waiting for her.

 
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“He wouldn’t say anything,” said Amaya, 50, a native of Honduras. “He was just staring at me. I ran out of there, traumatized. I told security, but as far as I know, nothing happened. It made me feel very afraid. It made me feel unprotected.”

Amaya is one of a handful of Sacramento hospitality workers who now are telling their stories in the hopes that the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors will approve a measure that will require all hotels and motels in the county to provide “panic buttons” or notification devices to each employee at no cost. Housekeepers often work by themselves, going in and out of rooms, and these wearable devices would help protect them from sexual harassment and assault.

The state is considering similar action. In January, Assemblymen Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, and Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, introduced a bill that would make California the first state in the nation to require that all hotels and motels provide panic buttons to employees who work alone.

But since there is no guarantee a state measure will become law, county supervisors including Phil Serna are pushing the local measure in an effort to protect as many hotel workers as possible, as quickly as possible.

“Despite what happens at the state Capitol, this is about expressing how we at the local level value the protection of women in the workplace,” he said.

Serna and others are looking to capitalize on the momentum of the #MeToo movement, which has seen many prominent women speaking out against sexual harassment, abuse and rape in the workplace and in society. Women who work at the state Capitol have accused men there of harassment and abuse, and have started a related campaign to address bad behavior and sexism in the workplace.

But with few exceptions, much of the #MeToo movement, which began in response to allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, has centered on professional women of some means and less on working-class women. This dichotomy has been noted by the famous and nonfamous alike.

Actress and political activist Jane Fonda recently said on MSNBC that she thought part of the reason why #MeToo has received so much attention is because many of Weinstein’s accusers “are famous and white and everybody knows them.”

“This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and doesn’t get out quite the same,” she said.

Fonda’s point was echoed in the days leading up to January’s Women’s March in Sacramento, which this year was fueled in part by #MeToo. Some women told The Bee they felt left out of the march and that their views, especially as women of color, were not always represented.

Serna said he has pushed the hotel issue in Sacramento with that situation in mind. Many hotel workers are “women of color, earning very little and likely avoiding reporting incidents,” he said. They are “often single moms who speak limited English. They are the humblest among us.”

There is no good reason for the county to do anything but approve the Hotel Worker Protection Act of 2018 at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. Amaya and a handful of other women are scheduled to tell their stories there, and their accounts are harrowing. (To protect their jobs, they will not be asked to reveal their employers.)

In the December incident, Amaya said she knocked on the door three times, per the hotel’s policy. There was no answer, so she opened the door but remained in the doorway, announcing her presence before entering. That was when she was confronted by the naked man.

He didn’t say anything, Amaya said. He just leered at her. Distressed, she reported what had happen to security and to the manager, saying she called “three times but never heard back.”

Security did respond to an incident that occurred about a decade ago, she said. A man approached her in the hotel hallway and asked her to get him a bottle of shampoo. She complied. The man then asked her to get him some mouthwash and bring it to his room. She retrieved it from her cart and knocked on the man’s door. There was no response. She assumed he had left the hotel.

He hadn’t.

“I opened the door and he was masturbating,” she said.

She turned to leave. The man told her to come in and “put the mouthwash in the bathroom.” She dropped it and fled.

Last year, Amaya said she had to lock herself in an empty room and call security because a man was following her around the hotel. Every time she exited a room, there he was, waiting.

“People sometimes treat you like you are their servant,” she said. “They treat you with no respect.”

The county ordinance being considered Tuesday only covers 32 hotels and motels with 25 or more rooms in the unincorporated area of the county. It does not apply to the city.

When I spoke with Amaya last week, she was not aware of that distinction. But she said she is speaking at Tuesday’s meeting because she wants her voice to be heard. Many of her coworkers are afraid to speak publicly about the issue, fearing professional retribution.

“We need protection,” she said.

Sacramento city officials should consider their own ordinance, like the one recently passed in Chicago. In a 2016 union survey of 500 hospitality workers in that city, 58 percent responded that they had been subjected to harassing behavior from guests, including flashing, groping and unwanted sexual advances.

The stories of working-class women have too often been overlooked as #MeToo has swept America. That needs to change. All women deserve to feel safe and respected while doing their jobs.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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