For Hotel Workers, Weinstein Allegations Put a Spotlight on Harassment
Posted December 17, 2017 7:47 p.m. EST
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — At a high-walled hotel here with celebrity customers, a housekeeper was turning down the sheets for a VIP guest one evening when she said the guest offered her money for a massage. She refused and told a supervisor. Still, the next day, she said she returned to clean the same suite, where she found an open briefcase with cash inside.
Last year, another housekeeper called the hotel office from a guest’s darkened room to say she felt uncomfortable. A second housekeeper was sent to the room as backup, and when she arrived, the guest grabbed her by the shoulders and groped her breasts, according to a police report and a person familiar with the case.
The hotel, the Peninsula Beverly Hills, has attracted attention beyond its usual circle of well-heeled patrons since several actresses, including Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow, accused Harvey Weinstein of using the cover of work meetings there to sexually harass them.
For employees of the Peninsula and other hotels, those allegations point to the mistreatment women endure alone in suites all the time. There is no evidence Weinstein abused hotel workers. But employees say hotels too often put discretion and deference to powerful customers before the well-being of women who work there, a claim that is catching hold in an industry under mounting pressure to protect workers. Housekeepers in Chicago recently seized on the Weinstein allegations to celebrate passage of a City Council bill that will require hotels to provide them with panic buttons so they can summon help. Seattle has a similar measure, and New York City’s biggest hotel operators agreed in 2012 to provide unionized workers with panic buttons after a housekeeper there said the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her; the charges against him were dismissed.
Under a California law, hotels can be held responsible for employees being sexually harassed by guests or trespassers who the hotels know to be abusive, a state appeals court ruled in October.
Still, security measures remain out of reach for many employees, and in Los Angeles, workers said hotels continued to indulge guests who misbehaved.
“They treat workers like their property,” the housekeeper who was propositioned for a massage said of the Peninsula.
Set behind vine-covered walls and a thick curtain of trees on South Santa Monica Boulevard, the Peninsula keeps records of guests’ robe sizes and preferred brands of toilet wipes, former employees said. It embroiders linens and stuffed animals with their initials.
Few guests drew as much attention from the hotel — or were as feared by its staff — as Weinstein, former employees said. He is under investigation by law enforcement agencies in three cities.
The New York Times interviewed eight current or former Peninsula employees and a former associate of Weinstein’s who traveled with him, and also reviewed several lawsuits by men and women who worked at the Peninsula accusing co-workers of sexual misconduct. The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.
They said they often felt helpless next to Hollywood titans whom the hotel went to extreme lengths to please.
Offer Nissenbaum, the managing director of the Peninsula, said in a statement, “We have employed thousands of people over 25 years and while we are not perfect, we do our best to treat our employees fairly and ensure their well-being. Please know that we learn from our mistakes and are always trying to improve.”
Nissenbaum said that the hotel will ask guests to leave if it finds they sexually harassed staff members and that it reports any illegal behavior it discovers to the police. The hotel, he said, also investigates and disciplines staff members accused of sexual harassment.
“We look after the smallest details to make our guests’ experience memorable,” he said. But, he said, that “does not mean we undertake any illegal activity or condone illegal behavior.” Hotels — workplaces for some, and leisurely retreats for others — have long made for difficult working environments, especially for women whose job it is to enter rooms. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force last year said housekeepers, like janitors on a night shift and agricultural workers in the fields, are “particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault” because they are often alone.
In the case of the Peninsula housekeeper who reported a groping, the investigation remains open. The police report, obtained through a public records request, says the suspect is unknown.
In another incident reported to the police in June, a Peninsula employee said a co-worker held her in a hug and tried to kiss her lips while they were both working, police records say.
Nissenbaum said of the employees, “Both these incidents were resolved to their satisfaction.”
Some Peninsula workers contacted for this story said they were unaware of Weinstein’s behavior. Others declined to answer questions about him. But employees said his infamous temper followed him from his home in Manhattan to the hotel’s gilded hallways.
On one occasion, he was talking on his cellphone in the lobby when a new staffer, regrouping after a stressful check-in, let out a sigh, said an employee who saw the situation unfold. Weinstein hung up, stomped over and berated the staffer for showing exasperation with guests nearby, the employee said. Tears streamed down the staffer’s face while Weinstein walked away.
Holly Baird, a spokeswoman for Weinstein, declined to comment on that account. She said of the drumbeat of allegations against him, “With respect to any women who have made allegations on the record, Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual.” At the Peninsula, a former front desk attendant said a supervisor sometimes sneaked up behind women and brushed their hair if she thought they did not meet the hotel’s exacting grooming standards. The attendant said she worried that hotel security was unresponsive when she raised concerns about guests trying to touch her or trap her in a hallway.
“They feel like they can hug you and touch you and grab you and squeeze you and tell you how good they think your legs look in that uniform,” she said, describing guests at the Peninsula. “You laugh, you smile and you stand on your back foot and never let them get between you and a door.”
A second former front desk attendant said a male supervisor had grabbed her and a colleague’s buttocks dozens of times behind the desk. She said she never reported the episodes because she did not trust management to take her complaints seriously.
An employee handbook in use several years ago listed hundreds of precise instructions for how to act when guests call (“no fourth ring”), pass in the hallway (“staff will move to the side and pause”) and arrive (“no guest will ever have to touch the front door”). It also warns employees against telling guests “no,” suggesting they find “considerate alternatives.” Nissenbaum said that was in no way license for guests to act inappropriately.
Nissenbaum provided a hotel sexual harassment policy that he said had been part of the employee handbook since at least 2003, and said the hotel complies with California law on sexual harassment. Former female employees said they gave new hires tips on how to protect themselves, like keeping a piece of furniture between themselves and guests known to grab women.
Some employees likened the Peninsula to a prison, saying jealously that those who left had gotten out “after time served at the Pen.”
For stars, though, it was a refuge.
Actresses holed up there after plastic surgery, ordering room service for days, former employees said. Men arrived with their wives on the weekend and different women during the week. The Peninsula instantly threw out paparazzi.
A bartender said in a lawsuit that after a co-worker in 2012 forced his hand onto her genitals and buttocks, the hotel’s director of security chided her for going to the police. The hotel settled the lawsuit in February for an undisclosed sum, a court document indicates.
Two female cooks at the hotel said in a 2008 lawsuit that supervisors blocked them from leaving the kitchen, pushed them against counters and rubbed their genitals against the women’s buttocks. The parties reached a confidential settlement agreement, said Bradley C. Gage, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Nissenbaum said the hotel was legally prohibited from commenting on employees and related legal matters.
Susan Minato, a co-president of Unite Here Local 11 in Los Angeles, said nonunion housekeepers told her they avoid reporting harassment for fear of being fired. Housekeepers at the Peninsula are not unionized. In a bid to secure protections for all workers, with or without a union, Unite Here pressed for legislation in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, that would have required hotels to provide workers with panic buttons, but the City Council rejected the measure.
A union survey of hotel workers in Chicago found that 58 percent of them had been sexually harassed by a guest.
Union organizers said immigrant workers were especially vulnerable. And the same power imbalance that gives guests too much control over female workers can also leave workers vulnerable to their managers, said Karen Kent, the president of Unite Here Local 1 in Chicago.
Weinstein frequently turned a fourth-floor Peninsula suite into his headquarters-away-from-home. He put up a team of his staff there, too, a former associate of his said. His stays would likely have brought in thousands of dollars; rooms at the Peninsula cost several hundred dollars a night, while suites can go for more than $2,000 a night. That money bought personalized service. Employees met to discuss the next day’s arrivals. Regular guests could store things for their next stay. For Weinstein, hotel workers furnished the room of one of his assistants with stationery embossed with the assistant’s name, the former associate said.
“Every time you stay there, what you order, what you eat — there’s a record of it,” said a former staff member at the Peninsula who took part in pre-arrival meetings.
The hotel is a picture of opulence. On a recent visit, the horseshoe driveway was lined with luxury cars. Hanging from the trees were orbs covered in tiny lights. Inside, attendants scurried around offering drinks.
Studio bosses, agents and actors often traveled to Weinstein’s suite.
On a late-summer day in 1998, Lola Glaudini, then 26, arrived at the Peninsula for what she expected to be a meeting about her acting career with Weinstein. After she asked for him at the front desk, an assistant whisked her upstairs and left her in a suite transformed from a business venue to a bacchanal. A room service cart was heaped with Champagne, lobster and shrimp. From the bedroom he told her to pour herself a drink — she did not — and he walked out in hardly any clothing, Glaudini said. They had met a few days earlier, at a premiere party for the movie “Rounders.” Glaudini, anxious to fill gaps in her memory, found a red carpet video on YouTube recently that recorded the introduction. She approached The Times with her story in October shortly after it published an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein.
In his suite, Weinstein asked her to play along in a fantasy, tried coaxing her into bed and, when she declined his advances, told her on the balcony about actresses he claimed to have slept with, including Paltrow, and suggested she do the same for a role.
“All I just kept wanting to do was get the meeting on track,” Glaudini said. “I wanted the meeting.”
Afterward, she said she steadied herself with a glass of wine at the hotel bar, scanning women who walked in for someone she feared might become his next victim. She said she told her father and her then-boyfriend, now-husband. In separate interviews, they both confirmed her account and recalled Glaudini being shaken and disappointed.
A few days later, Weinstein sent her a card urging her to contact his development team if she came up with a project, Glaudini said. He told her he would be happy to join the meeting.