Study finds widespread sexual harassment toward Chicago’s female hospitality workers

By Anna Foley

Kasey Nalls was 23 when she started her first casino job in northwest Indiana, clad in a tight blue velveteen uniform, serving drinks as a cocktail waitress.

During her first shift, Nalls said a male patron approached and said: “I’ve got the cock, you’ve got the tail.”

According to a new study conducted by Chicago’s Unite Here Local 1, Nalls’ experience is common. After surveying nearly 500 female hospitality workers at dozens of hotels and casinos in the Chicago area, the study found 77 percent of female casino workers surveyed had been sexually harassed by a guest. Additionally, 58 percent of female hotel workers reported sexual harassment from patrons.

Unite Here Local 1’s research analyst Sarah Lyons called the findings and testimonials “disturbing and enraging.” The organization wants state and local laws to require employers to ban sexual harassers and provide employees with panic buttons.

One casino cocktail server told researchers: “A guest wrapped his arm around my waist and across my buttocks and said, ‘You know I would be cheating on my wife for you, but I think you would be worth it.’”

Lyons said those personal accounts contribute to a larger trend: “While women’s individual stories were shocking, the widespread nature of the harassment really took us back.”

Unite Here Local 1 found women who work as hotel housekeepers are particularly subject to sexual harassment, though the prevalence of harassment among other categories of hospitality workers varies. For housekeepers, the most common form of sexual harassment was male guests showing their penises to housekeepers, according to the study. Additionally, 49 percent of housekeepers said male guests have exposed themselves, flashed their genitals or opened the door naked in front of the female workers.

“Women hotel workers have been cornered by guests, grabbed, groped and touched,” Lyons said.

For female casino workers, the work environment can be “particularly toxic,” Lyons said. According to the study, 65 percent of the 77 casino workers surveyed reported receiving unwelcome gestures like touching, groping and kissing from male patrons.

The study found that Chicagoland hospitality workers rarely report sexual harassment. Only one-third of women who experienced harassment ended up reporting it to a manager or supervisor. Those who have been harassed said the treatment contributed to a hostile work environment.

“Fifty-six percent of women hotel workers who had been harassed by a guest did not feel safe returning to work,” Lyons said. “You have to ask: What does it mean for the long-term physical and emotional health and safety of our women?”

Other Chicago-based labor organizations have voiced their support for United Here Local 1’s work. “Every day, the labor movement fights against discrimination,” said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “We fight for dignity and respect in the workplace. And it’s our job to stand up and fight back.”

Though Nalls first experienced sexual harassment as a casino worker over a decade ago, she still remembers how it made her feel.

“To get myself through that day, I had to take myself out of my body,” said Nalls, who joined the study because she felt it was her job to help shed light on this issue.

Photo at top: Unite Here Local 1 released a study finding a pattern of sexual harassment in the Chicagoland hospitality industry (Anna Foley/MEDILL).