N.J. labor officials are working to educate large hotel and motel owners about the state’s panic device law designed to protect housekeepers

Hotels that violate the law can be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for subsequent violations.

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A cleaning cart beside the door of a hotelroom.

A cleaning cart beside the door of a hotelroom. (jaap286104/BigStock)

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In the summer of 2018, a 66-year-old man was arrested and charged with criminal restraint and criminal sexual contact after locking a housekeeper in his room at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, grabbing her arms and molesting her.

The woman was able to escape and call for help after running to another room and locking herself in.

A year later, because of a history of other similar types of attacks being reported and pressure from various unions that represented hotel workers, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to require hotels, motels and inns with a minimum of 100 guest rooms to provide so-called panic devices. These devices are designed to aid employees working alone in rooms, enabling them to swiftly summon help in case of harassment or assault.

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On Thursday, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, in partnership with the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, co-hosted a webinar to raise awareness among hotel employers about their responsibilities under the law.

“Workers in New Jersey in many fields have a lot of protections, and this was one that the legislature and the governor felt was important for vulnerable workers to be able to have that sense of security when they go to work, especially when they’re in these rooms alone,” said, Rob Asaro-Angelo, Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development

He pointed out “the more vulnerable a worker may be, the less likely they are to know about their rights. So a lot of our efforts are about educating workers and employers.”

Under the law, hotels are required to take immediate action if a panic device is activated, and guests must be made aware of the panic device law when checking in.

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Bhavesh Patel is a principal owner with ADM Hotels, which operates the Holiday Inn Express in Westhampton.

He said thankfully none of his employees have had to use the panic device yet, and hopefully nobody will need to use it going forward.

“For the safety of our team members, I think it’s a great device to have,” he said.

He said the world is unpredictable and protections are important.

“It depends on the guests staying at your hotels and sometimes you never know,” said Patel, “at the end of the day, safety is the biggest concern for all our team members, our staff members. We do what we need to do to make sure they’re all safe and that they have the proper equipment.”

Under the law, hotel employers must supply, pay for and maintain panic devices, which can alert hotel managers or security guards. Some of the devices will set off a siren when activated.

The panic device law also requires hotels to keep a record of the accusations it receives and maintain the name of the accused guest on a list for five years from the date of the incident. The law also specifies any suspected misconduct or criminal activity must be reported to law enforcement.

In addition, the law prohibits employers from punishing any employee who activates a panic device, and the employer must notify other employees of the presence and location of any accused guests and allow them to opt out of servicing such locations.

The law stipulates the hotel, motel or inn must also immediately reassign the hotel employee who activated the panic device to a different work area away from the accused guest’s room for the duration of their stay.

Hotels that violate the law can be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for subsequent violations.

“The hospitality, entertainment, travel tourism industry is huge in New Jersey, it employs thousands of hotel workers,” Asaro-Angelo said. “Because this industry is so vital to our state it’s even more vital we protect the workers who work here.”

He noted the device can be worn on a chain around the neck, or it may be a type of two-way radio that can be carried in a pocket.

There are currently about 350 hotels, motels, inns and guest houses that have 100 or more rooms in New Jersey.

Some big brand hotel chains, including Marriott and Hilton, have distributed panic devices across the nation to all their employees who work alone in guest rooms.

According to a Labor Department spokesperson, the agency is focused on panic device law awareness and education, and has not issued any fines or penalties yet.

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