- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

Disgraced International Monetary Fund President Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested two weeks ago for allegedly assaulting a hotel maid. Already, one New York assemblyman has proposed requiring hotels to provide panic devices for housekeepers. This is an example of a “nanny state first” response that usually doesn’t work.

Hotels don’t need the state’s interference to understand that keeping employees safe is a top priority. Unsafe environments for staff will be the same for guests, which no one in the hospitality industry wants to risk, regardless of government edict. As Joseph A. McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association points out, requiring panic buttons would be “an overreach and overreaction. When you look at the number of people who stay in hotels every night and the number of people working in rooms, these incidents are really few and far between.” While the incident is “a wake-up call to look at security procedures to make sure we’re supporting staff, it’s a step too far to require hotels to spend money on incidents that don’t happen that often.” This ridiculous legislation would amount to a penalty on hotels just for being places where a crime could occur.

Reacting to crime with supposed legislative fixes is a fast track to bad policy and unintended repercussions. Crime and tragedy are, by nature, unpredictable. While safety is a worthy goal, it’s impossible to guarantee, regardless of preventative measures. Failing to understand that leads to an explosion of laws that are, in effect, just sympathy laws - legislative Band-Aids to assure victims or their families that “something” has been done. This type of law is nearly impossible to oppose without appearing to endorse the crime or tragedy that prompted it, even when the ensuing legislation would have had no effect on the incident that spawned it.

Consider “Kyleigh’s Law” in New Jersey. After 16-year-old Kyleigh D'Alessio died in a car accident in 2006, her mother mounted a successful campaign for a law requiring new drivers, predominantly teens, to display a red sticker on their license plates. The new law wouldn’t have prevented Kyleigh’s tragic death but actually has increased risk. An early report on Kyleigh’s Law by New Jersey’s attorney general found more than one incident of teens being targeted because of the decal. As Gregg Trautmann, who is challenging the law in court, told The Washington Times, by identifying young drivers, the stickers “put young women at risk of road rape and young men of being victims of road rage.”

Having a panic button wouldn’t have prevented the Sofitel housekeeper from being attacked. Mandating that New York hotels issue such devices might put her out of a job, though. $20 to $40 per housekeeper adds up. With the standard being one maid for every 15 rooms, New York state’s 195,695 rooms (as of April, according to STR, a research consultancy serving the hotel industry) would cost hotels more than half a million dollars. Quite a chunk of change for an industry grappling with recession.

It’s one thing if hotels elect to provide staff with devices or training to promote safety, as many do. If the government begins to mandate it, however, don’t be surprised when anti-rape fees pop up on New York hotel bills.