Blanca Smith works at the Hilton Hotel next to the Oakland Airport. She works in room service — delivering meals to guests — and she says some of those guests have harassed her. She says she's been traumatized by the things they’ve done, like flashing her or opening the door naked.
"It's so painful," Blanca says. "It's to the point where I don't know if I want to keep working, but I do it." But now she’s pushing for Measure Z, which would require panic buttons for hotel staff in Oakland.
Blanca is 63-years-old. She came to California from Mexico 22 years ago and has been working at the Hilton for the last 20 years.
A few weeks ago, Blanca says she walked in on a man massaging a woman’s back in a hotel room. The man turned to Blanca, and asked her to join him.
She says he told her, “‘Don’t you want to do it too? From top to bottom. Start with your tongue. Come on, give her a massage,’” recalls Blanca. Another man in the room kept trying to touch her. She pushed him away and ran off.
"If I had a panic button in that moment," Blanca says, "I would have pressed it."
If Oakland’s Measure Z passes, hotel workers like her will have these emergency devices. But the measure doesn’t just provide panic buttons.
Measure Z would also raise the minimum wage for workers at hotels with 50 or more rooms. Those employees would see a wage increase of $15 dollars an hour with benefits, or $20 dollars without.
But those wage hikes have some in the tourism industry worried.
“You’re really kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” says Mark Everton, the CEO of Visit Oakland, a marketing and tourism arm for the city.
Everton says it’s already difficult for hotels to set up shop in Oakland, and new requirements would make it even harder. “You’re generating some benefits on one side, but you’re losing a great opportunity on the other side, which is the additional tax revenue,” Everton says.
He says less hotel development means fewer taxes for the city to collect from tourism, and fewer jobs. In fact, the hotel industry and the California Chamber of Commerce defeated a statewide measure requiring panic buttons in August. But for advocates of the measure in Oakland, the wage increase is necessary to shift the power imbalance tied to harassment.
“It’s often women of color who are in a position of being more marginalized than the wealthy guests who come and stay in the hotels,” says Rachel Gumpert, a spokeswoman for Unite Here, a hotel and hospitality workers’ union. “And you also have a training culture in place where the hotel workers are taught to be extremely deferential to these men.”
Blanca says managers care more about guests than the workers. She says she used to report misbehaving guests to management. “In the past, when I’ve said something to them, they tell me to act like I haven’t seen it,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, you again? It doesn’t matter. Close your eyes.’”
But Blanca says she’s done closing her eyes. That’s why she’s joined the nationwide push for panic buttons. Cities like Seattle, Chicago, and Sacramento already require the devices. Long Beach voters are also weighing a measure that could require panic buttons in hotels. They look like panic alarms for cars, the kinds people carry on keychains. They can alert security without making a sound.
On a recent afternoon, Blanca Smith joined a national hotel strike in solidarity with other workers outside the Marriott in Downtown Oakland. This strike is for higher wages, not Oakland’s Measure Z. But Blanca was there to show support. She’s a union rep at the Hilton, even though her granddaughter is afraid her newfound activism will get her in trouble. But Blanca says what she really wants now is to be heard.
She says she speaks out for the people who won't. She jokes that she wants to retire young, but she keeps going "for everyone else." She says she wants to leave the hotel industry knowing others feel safe.
This story originally aired on KALW. JoAnn DeLuna translated Blanca Smith during interviews for this piece. Cynthia Morfin also assisted with translation.