BOSTON — Hotel workers are the next line of defense in efforts to stop sex trafficking, as a group of lawmakers calls for training in the hospitality industry to recognize signs of exploitation.
A proposal filed by Reps. Tom Walsh, D-Peabody, Sally Kerans, D-Danvers, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, would require hotels to develop a "human trafficking recognition program.”
"It would train the hotel workers to recognize those signs and notify the proper authorities," Walsh told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Walsh said he filed a bill after riding with FBI agents and local police who were investigating sex trafficking cases in his district.
"The human trafficking industry really runs on that Interstate 95 corridor between Florida up to the Canadian border," he said. "It's an incredibly horrible situation, and we are not immune to it on the North Shore."
If approved, the training must be approved by the attorney general's office before it is administered by police departments.
Walsh said it would focus on educating hotel workers on often subtle signs of exploitation, such as multiple individuals coming and going from a single room.
It would require hotels to post written notice in multiple languages urging victims of sexual exploitation to call a hotline providing access to law enforcement and supportive services.
Kerans said the proposal will help address a "horrifying epidemic.”
"We know that the sex trade is thriving in Massachusetts," she told the panel. "The victims of this exploitation are women, girls and boys."
"What's also shocking to think is any of us checking into a hotel or motel could be feet away from someone trapped in prostitution," she added.
Currently only four states -- California, Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey -- require sex exploitation training for hotel workers, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Foundation, an anti-trafficking group. Another 11 states recommend training.
At least 13 states, including Maine and New York, require hotels to post signs about sex trafficking hotlines and other information.
Fourteen states have penalties for hotels that don't comply with training or signage rules, with fines as high as $5,000.
Walsh's proposal doesn't include sanctions for hotels that don't comply.
Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-founder and executive director of the sexual trafficking survivors' group My Life My Choice, told lawmakers that sex traffickers have moved from visible areas in downtown Boston to expensive hotels along I-95 and other major corridors.
Most hotels don't require training to recognize sex trafficking, she said.
Some workers may be aware of a situation but don't know what to do about it, she said.
"Until now, this kind of training is only happening in hotels where leadership has chosen to commit to it," she said. "Those are few and far between."
She said required training for hotel workers is "crucial" to combating the illegal sex trade, which targets vulnerable populations.
"The signs are there," she told the panel. "Hotel workers can be trained to recognize red flags from the moment they sign someone in at the front desk, to when they go in to clean their rooms, to the varied signs that a security guard can pick up."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org