NEREXDA SOTO WAS TWENTY-TWO YEARS old when, several years ago, a customer of the hotel where she worked in Long Beach, California, began to stalk her. Many of the men who stay at the hotel, she tells me, "come and they see you and they feel as if they own you--that they can make you do anything they want."
This particular man would ask other hotel employees to see her specifically, then ask her inappropriate things and make dirty jokes. She was expected to smile, and when she didn't, he would get angry, she says.
"They treat you like an amenity that comes with the room," Soto says. "We have to deal with it, because we need the tips."
But still, when a representative of her union approached Soto with a survey on workplace harassment, she was skeptical. It was common knowledge that complaints went nowhere and at a previous job, she says, she was fired for complaining--so what was the point?
Eventually, Soto filled out the questionnaire, which was for union workers to identify their most pressing needs. She shared her story and, buoyed by the realization that others were experiencing similar problems, she began to encourage others to speak out as well. She joined fifteen to twenty other female hotel workers of color to meet with a local council member to tell their stories of sexual harassment on the job.
"Every story was worse than the other," Soto says. "I'm not a crying person, but I was sitting there crying."
The councilperson was a woman, and Soto hoped she would champion their cause and fight the hotel industry. Instead, the councilperson gave the workers her condolences and suggested they get walkie-talkies.
Being let down by this politician, Soto says, "lit us on fire."
Then, in April 2015, Claudia Sanchez, a twenty-year-old Renaissance Hotel dishwasher also in Long Beach, suffered a paralyzing brain hemorrhage after working six hours of overtime on top of a regular eight-hour work shift. Claudia's story added fuel to the fire and bolstered the workers' demands for protections against sexual abuse, new workload limits, and a ban on forced overtime. "Women of color, my people, are the people getting fucked over. Women that look like me are getting fucked over, and people take advantage of our circumstances," Soto says.
Hotel workers mobilized to raise awareness and pressure politicians to act. But Soto says the hotel industry's political influence and campaign contributions dissuaded the city council from taking any action. "We don't...