Lawsuit Alleges Marriott Failure to Protect Employee Against Guests’ Sexual Misconduct

By | January 30, 2019

Leticia Vallejo, a housekeeper at a Marriott hotel in Irvine, California, said that back in the summer of 2017, a drunk male guest groped her while she was cleaning the hotel lobby bathroom. As he did so, he offered her $50.

In an interview, Vallejo, 51, said that when she told one of her supervisors, the response was laughter—and a joke to the effect of “he should have offered you $100.” This wasn’t the first, or the last, incident in a hotel bathroom, said Vallejo, who has worked at the Marriott location for 18 years. Men often urinate in front of her and make inappropriate comments or advances. It’s a regular occurrence for female housekeepers, she said.

The picture she painted echoed her lawsuit, filed Monday in California Superior Court. In it, Vallejo alleged that her supervisors at Marriott Irvine didn’t do enough to protect her from guest misconduct, creating a hostile work environment. She repeatedly asked for a sign to keep people out of bathrooms while she cleaned, according to the complaint. Previously, the hotel had signs which also served to block guests from entering, she said, but management discontinued their use as “old-fashioned.”

Eventually, Vallejo was provided with a small sign that didn’t block the bathroom entrance, she said. As for the alleged assault, she said management didn’t respond. “They didn’t investigate,” she said. “There’s no protection.” Lawyers for Vallejo said she filed a notice with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and was issued a right-to-sue letter prior to filing the lawsuit. In her complaint, Vallejo is seeking unspecified damages and injunctive relief.

“Marriott International has a longstanding commitment to the well-being of associates,” said Jeff Flaherty, a company spokesman. “Marriott has a global policy that strictly prohibits harassment of any associate by any other associate, manager, supervisor, vendor, guest, client or customer.” He declined to comment on Vallejo’s lawsuit.

“She herself was powerless. She couldn’t decline to clean the restroom.”

Her case comes after a year of agitation by Marriott employees who have been pushing for increased safety measures to protect against customer harassment. At a shareholders meeting last May, eight other female Marriott employees who worked in hotels across the country shared similar experiences or urged executives to take action.

This winter, an almost two-month long strike did result in wage increases and stronger sexual harassment protections for thousands of unionized Marriott workers. The Irvine Marriott, however, wasn’t unionized at the time.

In her complaint, Vallejo describes in detail the incident in the bathroom and her repeated requests for a sign. When Marriott did provide her with one in December, she said, it was the size of an 8 ½ x 11 inch sheet of paper. “Men still come into the bathroom,” she said in an interview. According to her complaint, management’s “failure to provide adequate protection” resulted in a “consistent pattern of conduct which occurred on a regular and frequent basis.”

“The hotel has placed her in this obviously dangerous and untenable situation,” said Lauren Teukolsky, Vallejo’s attorney. “She herself was powerless. She couldn’t decline to clean the restroom.”

In a statement Sept. 6, Arne Sorenson, chief executive of Marriott International, said the chain is focused on “deterring and combating harassment of any kind.”

Over the last year, the #MeToo movement, which initially focused on the entertainment industry, CEOs and white-collar workers, started to illuminate the experiences of low-wage, service workers. Last year, Walmart and McDonald’s were both hit with claims of workplace sexual harassment. And, in September, hundreds of McDonald’s workers protested conditions at the fast-food chain, demanding the company do more to protect its employees. In public statements, both companies have said they don’t tolerate workplace harassment.

Vallejo is the sole plaintiff in her lawsuit, which names two Marriott subsidiaries and eight unidentified parties as defendants. Three other women who work at the Irvine Marriott shared similar allegations of harassment with Bloomberg, and what they said was a lack of action by management. “They never listen to us,” said Lilliana Rodriguez, one of the three women. She has worked at the Irvine Marriott for 18 years. “They always tell us what is important are the guests.”

Hotel workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace harassment. An analysis of claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the Center for American Progress found that more than a quarter of complaints came from industries with large numbers of service sector workers.

“Somebody needs to listen to us. This is enough.”

Hotel unions have made protecting workers from sexual assault a key demand since 2012, when a housekeeper at a New York hotel accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn denied the allegations and reached a settlement with the housekeeper, but the high profile case resonated throughout the industry. Since then, hotels and municipalities have taken some steps to protect employees, including the passage of laws in Chicago and Seattle requiring hotels to provide a panic button to those who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, of which Marriott is a member, challenged the Seattle law, which a state appeals court overturned in December. The group said in a statement at the time that “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.”

At one time, the Irvine Marriott provided panic devices to employees, Rodriquez said, but they were taken away in 2012. “It wasn’t connected to anything; it would just make a noise,” she said. “I used it, but I didn’t feel any security.”

In a press release in September, the company said it was introducing “associate alert devices” across all of its locations, a process it said would continue through 2020. The devices would send a discrete notification and include technology allowing others to pinpoint the worker who activated it, Marriott said.

Vallejo and Noel Rodriquez, a spokesman for Unite Here 11, said they are unaware of any new panic buttons having been distributed to housekeepers at Marriott Irvine since the company announcement. Flaherty, the company spokesman, said he didn’t “have specifics” related to their roll-out there.

“I don’t want other people to go through this,” said Vallejo, who along with 120 other back-of-house employees voted to form a union at Marriott Irvine earlier this month, as a part of Unite Here 11. “I hear stories from the other housekeepers. They have a right to speak up, they have a right to say something,” she said. “Somebody needs to listen to us. This is enough.”

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