NEW YORK Days after former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in his luxury Sofitel hotel suite, the housekeeping staff at the nearby Sheraton New York was called to a meeting with hotel management.
In the meeting -- recounted by Beverly Banton, a housekeeper at the Sheraton -- management told the staff that the hotel would not tolerate any misbehaviour from its guests, and that they should report any inappropriate incidents.
That is a notable shift from past practice at some New York hotels, according to several hotel workers protesting on Monday outside the New York Supreme Court in lower Manhattan, where Strauss-Kahn was pleading not guilty to the charges against him that carry up to 25 years in prison.
Often, the workers said, complaints of inappropriate behaviour by guests were swept under the rug.
Banton said she was assaulted several years ago, when a guest grabbed her breast inside his hotel room. Security removed the guest from the hotel, but the police were not summoned, she said.
"In those days, they would say, 'The guests come first.' There's a lot of people this happened to who didn't say nothing. Now it's all out in the open. I hope this changes things -- it has to," Banton said.
The Sheraton did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to the meeting at the Sheraton, the Four Seasons held a refresher course on sexual harassment and reviewed its safety procedures in the last week, said Tiffani Cailor, a spokeswoman for the hotel.
"Based on what has been happening, we just wanted to make sure that our staff feels safe and comfortable," she said.
Broader protections may be coming soon.
The Hotel Association of New York is planning to meet with the hotel workers' union to discuss potential reforms, including improved training for security and other staff. The association is also meeting with state Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who has proposed legislation mandating panic buttons for housekeeping staff.
Since the May 14 Strauss-Kahn arrest, the Sofitel and the Pierre, another high-end hotel in midtown Manhattan, have both decided to give panic buttons to housekeepers.
"The safety of our hotel workers continues to be of primary importance to all members," association spokeswoman Lisa Linden said. "There have been and will be discussions about the safety of our workers.
The maid who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexually attacking her has hired Kenneth Thompson, an experienced civil litigator, and could eventually file a civil lawsuit seeking damages. But it is doubtful that the Sofitel could be named as a defendant in such a suit, because the standard for finding a hotel liable for attacks on its staff is not easy to meet.
Generally, injuries sustained while working are covered by workers' compensation laws, which ensure that employees are compensated in exchange for waiving their right to sue their employers.
New York state law allows employees to sue for additional compensation if they can prove their employer engaged in "gross negligence." But courts have held that gross negligence must include intentional misconduct on the part of the employer, and this is a high bar for a plaintiff to clear.
"In order to show gross negligence, you need to show that the employer participated in the assault," said labour attorney Philip Berkowitz, of Littler Mendelson.
The standard would not be met in the case of an employee assaulted by a guest, even if the employee could show that the hotel's security procedures were flawed, Berkowitz said.
Liability aside, there is little question that hotels would prefer to avoid any incidents that might harm their image.
"These hotels do not want this exposure," said Richard Roth, an attorney who has represented corporate and entertainment clients. "This case is getting hotels to reassess their policies, because they want to make sure it doesn't happen to them." (Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Jesse Wegman and Mohammad Zargham)