Houston hotels and motels must train their employees on how to spot human trafficking and contact law enforcement under an ordinance approved by city council Wednesday.
The mandate also requires the businesses keep records of the training, which they must produce within three days upon request by the city. All 524 Houston hotels and motels also must post signs that list common indicators of trafficking, along with phone numbers for local and national law enforcement and other information.
The ordinance takes effect immediately, but businesses will not have to certify their employees have been trained until March 31, 2021.
The measure was approved by a 16-0 vote with Councilmember Michael Kubosh absent.
Houston is the second city in the country to adopt such an ordinance, after Baltimore. The Texas Hotel and Lodging Association said it supports the ordinance, and is planning to seek a statewide mandate from the Texas Legislature.
“I view this as the first step and not the final step,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. Some council members said they want to impose further requirements in the future.
Most hotels chains already conduct training, but Minal Patel Davis, who led the ordinance’s drafting as the mayor’s special adviser on human trafficking, said the policy provides consistency by establishing standards for that training and a mandate for those that do not already provide it.
Some training, she said, only addresses sex trafficking and leaves out labor trafficking. Others do not have time pacing mechanisms for online training, which means one employee can complete the training for an entire staff in an hour. The city also will have the power to approve what training programs may be used.
“Do brand hotels have their trainings? Yes,” Patel Davis said. “My question would be, if they are … why is the risk landscape what it is for the industry?”
In December, three victims sued three major hotel chains, arguing that the companies exercised gross negligence about on-site prostitution at Houston hotels despite corporate policies that promote social responsibility.
A survey of trafficking survivors found that 80 percent of respondents said the commercial sex trade they experienced had occurred in hotels.
Houston had 202,352 unique ads directly marketing commercial sex over the last eight months, according to Children at Risk, a nonprofit that tracks such advertisements. That is second in the state to Dallas, the group said.
During a presentation last week, the policy’s authors referred to the case of the former Plainfield Inn, a hotel near the Bissonnet “Track,” known for street-level prostitution, where there were 400 calls for police service over two years.
The mother of one minor victim filed a civil lawsuit in 2017 after the body of her daughter, who was alleged to have been trafficked out of the motel, was murdered and found in a ditch. Petitions in that lawsuit argued she might have survived if employees had been empowered to spot trafficking.
READ ‘THE TRACK’: A three-part Chronicle investigation exploring Houston’s reputation for trafficking
District J Councilman Edward Pollard, whose district includes the Bissonnet Track, called the ordinance a “step in the right direction.”
“We do need to look at it and see what we can do to possibly make it stronger down the line,” Pollard said, suggesting a 12-hour minimum rule for hotel and motel stays. Council member Robert Gallegos echoed that call.
The ordinance was built off model legislation supported by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, but Patel Davis said it goes further, including fines to hold businesses accountable. It also forbids hotels and motels from retaliating against an employee who reports trafficking.
The ordinance includes fines of $100 for first violations and $500 after that. Each day the policy is violated is considered a separate infraction.
Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, told council members last week that the ordinance will help reach the hotels falling through the cracks.
“Our hope with the ordinance is that we’ll be able to reach the hotels that maybe aren’t members of our association or aren’t affiliated with a major hotel brand where human trafficking training is already mandated by brand standards,” Bragiel said. “So this will be broader and, hopefully, wider.”