ORLANDO, Fla. — 9 Investigates uncovered that hotels and motels across Central Florida violated state law aimed at helping identify human trafficking victims more than 15,000 times -- but not one of those businesses has been punished with a fine.
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Investigative reporter Karla Ray looked into where those repeat offenders are and the push to close the gap.
It’s the dark side of Central Florida’s tourism industry, with sex trafficking victims often staying in the same hotels as tourists.
“People say they want to stop human trafficking, but they also don’t want to see us. The hotels see us first. We’re there,” Dr. Marianne Thomas said.
Thomas is a licensed counselor and interim director of One Purse, a local nonprofit that collects gently used or new designer bags for resale to raise money for human trafficking survivors.
The mission is personal for Thomas. She was first sold for sex at age 15, and didn’t escape the life for nearly two decades.
Read: Legislation passed to regulate Florida human trafficking safehouses following 9 Investigates series
“What I know is that every Friday night, I would pull up to the same valet who knew exactly what was going on, who said ‘hello’ to me every Friday night because he knew what was going on,” Thomas recalled. “The bartenders in the downstairs bar knew what was going on; the servers in the restaurants knew what was going on; the front desk staff, the housekeeping service knew what was going on. The people out at the pool knew what was going on. I was such a regular at the hotel, and then with different men every single weekend; they knew exactly what was going on.”
In 2019, Florida lawmakers passed legislation to help hotel workers identify people like Thomas.
As of January 2021, all lodging establishments are required to train employees on human trafficking, and if they fail to do so, they could face fines of up to $2,000 per day.
9 Investigates found that of more than 15,000 cited violations, no motel or hotel has been fined -- even repeat offenders.
“No, no fines, because they have 90 days to correct whatever is wrong. And that’s just like an unlimited pass,” survivor Savannah Parvu said.
Read: Victims raise questions after changes to Florida human trafficking bill
Parvu recently testified in front of lawmakers, calling for hotels to be held accountable.
“The hotel staff knew what was happening, and they did nothing to help me,” Parvu recalled. “I felt like if somebody stepped in and helped me when I was 12, I wouldn’t have been trafficked as long as I was, and I wouldn’t have had the lasting effects that I’ve had.”
9 Investigates drilled down to just Orange County and found 27 hotels that have been cited on three or more different dates for failing to train employees. Two of those have been found out of compliance on six different dates since January 2021.
“I don’t believe that, maliciously, the owners or leaders of the hotel industry just don’t want to do it. There’s a barrier against it, and so, how do we break down that barrier?” Jessica Wickey said.
Wickey runs the internship program at the Rosen College for Hospitality Management, ensuring all of its students are trained to help identify human trafficking.
Read: Human trafficking survivors raise concerns about Central Florida safehouse, lack of state regulation
Wickey says it should be an industry standard.
“Hopefully, this cycle of non-training will really phase itself out in the next few years,” Wickey said.
Tougher enforcement could help. A proposed update to the law would eliminate the grace period for second or subsequent violations, prompting fines of $2000 per day for any repeat offenders. It would also reduce the grace period for coming into compliance after a first offense from 90 to 45 days.
Advocates say it’s overdue.
“We put these laws into effect, and then we don’t follow through with them. We don’t do the part that would actually hold people accountable and maybe make a dent in sex trafficking,” Thomas said.
That legislation has passed, and is expected to receive the Governor’s signature.
We reached out to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association about the citations and proposed updates to the law. A spokesperson said this in a statement:
FRLA and our members have long been committed to ending human trafficking and to implementing policies that support safe experiences for our guests. Our Association has provided training since before it was mandated by law as we feel it is critical to train our teams to be able to spot, report, and ultimately stop trafficking. While a deeper examination would show that there are currently no active enforcement cases under the statute because all existing licensees are in compliance or actively working toward compliance, we understand the concern about wanting to make sure that all lodging establishments are timely complying with the training statute. We are working with the Legislature to refine language that will shorten the compliance period. It is our hope that there will be a small grace period of two to five days for second and subsequent administrative violations to allow for small administrative corrections to be made before penalties would accrue.
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