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Because of what's transpired on the presidential campaign trail, sexual harassment is something we're all talking about more. But we're also getting a reminder from a Chicago labor union that, for many, this issue is part of life. The union Unite Here interviewed hundreds of hotel room attendants, casino cocktail waitresses and others about sexual harassment they face on the job in the hospitality industry. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's mostly women who serve the drinks at casinos and clean hotel rooms. In the Chicago area alone, there are more than 15,000 hospitality workers, workers like Casey Knowles (ph). She's been a cocktail waitress at a casino for 11 years and says the controversy consuming the presidential race may actually help change the culture surrounding sexual harassment.
CASEY KNOWLES: I always thought it was a serious issue. I feel like we're walking prey.
CORLEY: Knowles says, in casinos, it's almost commonplace for a customer to try to grab one of the female servers. And sometimes, it just shakes her to her core.
KNOWLES: Yeah, I actually had a guest slide a table game chip - he slid the chip in between my breasts.
CORLEY: And, she says, there's often someone with a lewd comment. But Knowles says, rather than leave her job that helps her support her two teenage children, she wants everyone to know she has the right to be respected in the workplace. Lashontay Thompson (ph) works at a downtown Chicago hotel, assisting housekeepers and bringing items to guest rooms.
LASHONTAY THOMPSON: I've been in a room with four men in underwear, and, like, they're just parading around me. And I can tell that they think that it's a joke or it's funny, but I feel really uncomfortable and violated.
CORLEY: Knowles and Thompson are members of Unite Here, the national labor union that represents thousands of hotel, casino and food-service workers. The Chicago-area chapter surveyed nearly 500 of them for its report it called Hands Off, Pants On. Researcher Sarah Lyon (ph) says, while stories may be shocking, what's even more alarming is the frequency of indecent behavior these women face from male guests. She says more than three-quarters of the casino workers they talked to reported incidents of sexual harassment.
SARAH LYON: What we found with housekeepers - 49 percent of the housekeepers we surveyed said a guest had exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked.
CORLEY: It's the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that handles discrimination complaints. And attorney John Hendrickson (ph) is not surprised by the numbers.
JOHN HENDRICKSON: If you open the door and you look out, you're going to see sexual harassment somewhere on the job. It's been a persistent problem.
CORLEY: The EEOC doesn't track sexual harassment complaints by industry, but last year, about 7,000 were filed. That was actually a decrease from previous years, but Hendrickson says women often don't report sexual harassment because of a double whammy - worry about job security and social pressure. While there may be a reluctance by women in the hospitality industry to file sexual harassment complaints, the union that represents many of them is tackling the issue with a video.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Listen as these union men read quotes from housekeepers and waitresses.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK, he was completely naked, standing between...
CORLEY: In the video, union leaders say men must also speak out, and they read and react to stories of workplace harassment of female workers. Unite Here is also proposing new legislation targeting the hospitality industry. It would require employers to ban guests who have sexually harassed an employee. Another proposal would require employers to provide panic buttons to any employee who works alone in rooms. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.