Seattle court strikes down hotel-worker protections initiative

The lawsuit was brought forth by the AH&LA, the Seattle Hotel Association and the Washington Hospitality Association. Photo credit: Getty Images/Stephen Wood

On Dec. 24, the Washington State Court of Appeals struck down Seattle's planned protections measure for hotel workers that had been approved by voters though an initiative in November 2016.

Initiative 124 was determined by the court to have violated Seattle's "single subject" requirement, which restricts the passage of multiple rules in one measure. The requirement was instituted to prevent lawmakers from stashing unpopular proposals within a larger collection of proposed legislation during voting.

The lawsuit, which was brought by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the Seattle Hotel Association and the Washington Hospitality Association, maintains I-124's seven parts lack "rational unity" and therefore should not comprise one initiative.

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Known as the Hotel Employees Health and Safety Initiative, it was presented on the November 2016 presidential-election ballot after Unite Here Local 8, a hotel workers union, reportedly pushed for its inclusion, and it passed with more than 75 percent approval.

One of the staple elements of the initiative is a provision requiring large hotels to provide so-called panic buttons to hotel workers for protection while on the job. However, the initiative also carries controversial new rules that require hotels to maintain a list of guests who have been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing hotel workers. This list would forewarn workers of the arrival of such a guest. The initiative also stipulates hotels: pay workers time-and-a-half if they clean more than 5,000 square feet in an eight-hour shift; place hiring requirements to retain previous workers in the event of a change in management; and provide a health-care subsidy to workers.

The court determined the individual pieces of I-124 were disparate enough to breach Seattle's single-subject rule, writing that I-124 "identifies at least four distinct and separate purposes," finding "the purposes of the operative provisions... are completely unrelated.”

The court further wrote: “Requiring hotels to maintain a list of people who have been accused of sexually harassing hotel employees is unrelated to limiting the number of square feet a hotel worker can be required to clean in an eight-hour period without being paid overtime, or requiring a hotel to create a seniority list from which a new owner must hire employees for a period of time after a change in ownership.”

"We couldn't disagree more strongly with the Court of Appeals decision and will be working with the City to ensure that the will of Seattle voters is upheld and the needs of Seattle hotel workers are met," Abby Lawlor, strategic researcher at Unite Here, said in a statement.

The initiative also is being challenged in federal court by the ERISA Industry Committee, which claims the provision requiring hotels to provide health-care subsidies violates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Due to this lawsuit, the City of Seattle chose not to enforce the health-care portion of the measure until September or until the lawsuit reaches a conclusion.

While the AH&LA was at the forefront of challenging Seattle's provision on hotel-worker safety, the organization also came out in support of promoting worker safety in September. At that time, the AH&LA revealed the "5-Star-Promise," which consists of a pledge to improve safety and accountability for hotel employees in the United States alongside the industry's largest hotel companies. Safety devices and programs already have begun rolling out across the industry in a variety of ways depending on the size and location of a property.

Following the ruling, Katherine Lugar, outgoing president and CEO of the AH&LA, stated: “This week’s ruling is welcome news for hotel owners and operators not only in Seattle, but throughout the country, setting an important legal precedent. The hotel industry is an industry of people serving people, and the safety and security of our employees and guests is of paramount importance. We take any allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct extremely seriously, and we are committed to ensuring a safe and healthy workplace for all team members, as evidenced by the 5-Star Promise...But the flaws contained in this measure were too significant to go unchallenged. 
 
“As we stated in court, we opposed Seattle Initiative 124 because we believe it violates the due-process rights of our guests and places hotel employees in the role of law enforcement, without proper training," she continued. "And, while the initiative was passed under the guise of employee safety, it included several regulations that have nothing to do with safety, such as work rules and health-insurance requirements. We are pleased that the Washington Court of Appeals agreed with our assessment and invalidated the initiative."