If someone checks in to a hotel with a local address, pays cash, and seems to speak for another hotel guest who appears distressed, hotel workers should pay close attention: He or she could be involved in human trafficking.

That was one of the takeaways for approximately a dozen hotel workers who attended a free training Tuesday to help them identify and report possible instances of human trafficking, which could include underage prostitution and migrant workers being transported and forced into labor.

The training, held in a small conference room at the Omni Colonnade hotel, hints at what hotel workers across the state will soon be required to attend.

A new state law passed this year and taking full effect Jan. 1, 2022, requires hotels and motels to train their employees on human trafficking prevention and reporting. These businesses also must post signs with reporting information in areas visible to employees.

Such training has long been encouraged by associations like the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association, which alongside the San Antonio association pushed for the recent bill requiring it.

Both organized the training Tuesday, the first session of several to be hosted this week and which will be capped off with a panel discussion featuring Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. Programming for the training, as well as the certificates given to attendants, came from an organization called BEST, or Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking.

San Antonio police investigate roughly 120 cases of human trafficking per year, according to Lt. Bill Grayson, director of the Special Victims Unit who spoke at the session.

When he began investigating these cases in 2011, there were only 32 cases that year. He said it was unclear if the increase in investigations reflects an actual increase in occurrence or if trafficking is reported more thanks to greater awareness.

He said the vast majority of victims in these investigations are underage, but this may be due to differences in how reports are handled. When a minor is reported to be a victim, it triggers an automatic investigation. The minor does not have to cooperate with an investigation for it to proceed. The same is not true for trafficked adults, who can ask law enforcement to not pursue a case.

This and other complexities in reporting, as well as the sensitive nature of these crimes, make it difficult to assess the true scope of human trafficking.

“How often does this happen in San Antonio? We don’t know. No one does,” said Susan Burkholder, community engagement director at Ransomed Life, a nonprofit that provides support services for survivors of child sex trafficking in Bexar County.

The center served 95 youths in 2019, she said.

Burkholder said that although numbers are difficult to pin down, she often cites a study from the University of Texas at Austin that she calls one of the more exhaustive. The study estimates that in Texas at any given time there are 234,000 victims of labor trafficking and 79,000 victims of sex trafficking among people 23 years old or younger.

Labor trafficking — in which workers, typically migrants, are forced into labor — happens most frequently in industries like cleaning, construction, and food processing, said organizers at Tuesday’s training.

This type of abuse also occurs in agriculture. A notable case comes from a prominent Texas-based supplier of potatoes, Larsen Farms, where a Univision investigation last year prompted federal authorities to arrest several farm supervisors.

The training on Tuesday emphasized that the potential indications for labor trafficking at hotels sometimes resemble those of sex trafficking: confused and distressed guests who appear to be under the control of another person in their party.

Hotel workers have a chance to intervene, organizers stressed.

“You guys on the front line can make a tremendous difference,” said Christy Spradling, a director at the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association who helped give the training.

Liability is another motivating factor for the industry. Trainer Carolyn McCall-Squires, another director from the state association, said hotels in recent years have been vulnerable to lawsuits related to trafficking. In Houston, three women sued major hotel chains in 2019 claiming they hadn’t done enough to prevent their trafficking.

The new law requiring training for hotel workers joins other laws meant to reform how the state handles sex trafficking. Texas will become the first state to make buying sex a felony under another law that goes into effect Sept. 1.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.