Hotel Housekeepers Share Tales of Sexual Harassment

PHOTO: Hortensia Valera , a housekeeper in California, spoke to ABCNews.com about being sexually harassed.
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Elizabeth Moreno was making the bed in a downtown Chicago hotel room when the room's guest unexpectedly returned.

Hotel policy dictated she had to leave, but he insisted she stay.

"He started asking me, 'What are you doing later?'" Moreno said.

Then, she said, he told her, "We can have sex. I'll give you money -- whatever you want."

The 34-year-old, who has been a housekeeper for 19 years, said she aggressively told him no.

"I was talking to him real angry," she said.

She says he left the room soon afterward and Moreno told her manager right away.

"I was so scared," Moreno said. "[The manager said] 'You O.K., you O.K.?' I said, 'No, I'm not O.K. I'm nervous."

Her manager confronted the guest, and Moreno said the guest denied ever having solicited her.

In the days following, she said, "nobody cleaned his room."

It wasn't the first time Moreno had been subjected to inappropriate behavior at work, she said. One time a man approached her in the hallway, offering to pay for a massage. He asked several times and promised to pay her "good money."

"He said he wanted massage ... maybe he wanted something else," she said.

Similar incidents happened at the first hotel she worked at, 14 years ago, but there, she said, the management didn't do anything.

The management at her current hotel is responsive to workers' concerns, she said, but she worries because they only have security guards on the weekend.

Sometimes she also fears her hotel's daily 4 p.m. check-in, when the housekeeping staff goes from room to room. Moreno said guests occasionally answer the door naked -- without even so much as a towel -- something that her sister, who used to work as a housekeeper, has also experienced.

Housekeepers Share Their Stories

Moreno, and many other female hotel workers, are now speaking out, inspired by the bravery of two New York hotel maids.

After the New York housekeepers reported alleged abuse, police arrested two powerful men: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and former banking executive Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, who now heads El-Mex Salines Co., a solar salt producer in Egypt.

Omar is accused of sexually abusing a maid Sunday at The Pierre, a luxury 5-star hotel on New York's swanky 5th Avenue.

It's not yet clear if Omar has an attorney. According to The Associated Press he was transferred Tuesday morning to a booking facility near a Manhattan courthouse after being held Monday night at a police precinct.

Strauss-Kahn is under house arrest in a luxurious New York City apartment awaiting his fate in a sexual assault case. The 32-year-old hotel maid he is charged with attempting to rape at the upscale Sofitel hotel has gone into hiding.

He faces 25 years behind bars if convicted.

Hotel Maids Solicited by Guests

The high-profile sexual assault cases are also revealing the surprising dangers of a job that does not always seem dangerous, shedding light on just how many sexual assaults against housekeeping staff are reported, or not, to hotel security every year.

"We're hearing lots and lots of stories," said Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for Hotel Workers Rising, an offshoot of Unite Here, a union that represents 100,000 workers in the hotel industry.

Hortensa Valera, a hotel housekeeper for the past 11 years, said hotel guests often turn her cleaning job into a nightmare.

The mother of two told ABC News she can recall at least six instances in the past 11 years when she has been solicited by hotel guests, including one man who closely watched as she cleaned his room.

Valera said he asked her whether she needed some extra cash. Confused, she questioned him, and then she says he offered to pay if she gave him an intimate massage. When she realized what he was asking, she gasped, and ran out of the room.

"My body was shaking like ... oh my god," she said. "At the same time I was shaking, I was rushing ... and the only thing I was thinking was 'go'."

Anthony Romans, a hotel security and risk management consultant, told ABC News such incidents are common.

"Propositioning and touching happens approximately 10 to 12 times per year and the more serious events, such as propositioning in a more aggressive fashion where they're holding the maid against their will and actually sexually assaulting them would occur once or twice per year," he said.

In the last three years, at least 10 other hotel housekeepers have said they have been attacked in the United States, according to an AP review of court documents and news reports.

"They just think that because we didn't go to college or that we do this kind of job, we don't have values," Valera said. "They should treat us, the housekeepers, the same way they treat their mothers or their sisters or any woman who they value."

John Turchiano, spokesman for the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, says the term "maid" -- often used by the public and the media to describe room attendants or housekeepers -- not only suggests subservience, but also has sexual overtones.

"The term 'maid' conjures up images we'd like to avoid … curtseys and short skirts," he said.

While the Sofitel, where the Strauss-Kahn incident occurred, has been roundly credited for reacting quickly and appropriately to the maid's allegations, advocates for hotel workers said this high-profile example is more the exception than the rule.

"The housekeepers have no say," said Lorena Lopez, a Los Angeles-based organizer for Unite Here, the hotel workers' union charged with protecting women like the maid in the Strauss-Kahn case.

Housekeepers will have their say Thursday, however, when Hotel Workers Rising has scheduled press conferences in nine cities with nearly 100 women, including those who are not part of any union, to share stories about sexual harassment in the hotel industry, a problem Strassel called "pervasive."

"There has been silence on this issue for a long time -- we think it's really important that women come forward and we expect that the hotels will respond appropriately," she said.

Turchiano said union membership makes it easier for hotel employees to speak out when something inappropriate happens, without fear of reprisal or discipline.

"If they report an incident to management, the union will back them up 100 percent," he said.

Union: The Customer Is Not Always Right

The Hotel Trades Council advises its members to leave the door open when cleaning a room, and if a customer says something inappropriate to leave the room immediately. In addition, if a guest is present, the cleaning staff don't need to clean the room.

"You've heard the phrase the customer is always right," Turchiano said. "Well, guess what, they're not."

Adding to the stress for hotel workers is the fact that many of them, Valera included, are immigrants who must weigh the risk of reporting instances of guest abuse against the need to keep their jobs, and their families, safe.

"Many of these women would rather stay quiet because they know that their job could be on the line if a guest complains," Lopez noted.

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