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Bill would train hotel employees to recognize human trafficking

Del. Shelly A. Simonds, D-Newport News, discussed her bill Thursday during a House subcommittee...
Del. Shelly A. Simonds, D-Newport News, discussed her bill Thursday during a House subcommittee meeting.(Joe Dodson, Capital News Service)
Published: Jan. 21, 2022 at 4:56 PM EST

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislators raised a few questions with a measure that would deploy hotel staff to help combat human trafficking.

The bill introduced by Del. Shelly A. Simonds, D-Newport News, was heard Thursday in a House subcommittee.

House Bill 258 would authorize the Department of Criminal Justice Services to create an online mandatory course to help hotel employees better recognize and report human trafficking.

The bill would require employees to complete the training within six months of employment and become recertified once every two years. Simonds worked with representatives of the hospitality industry to clarify that staff employed when the bill goes into effect will need to complete training by the end of the year.

“Our friends in law enforcement need folks in hospitality and everyone in the community to help combat this horrible problem,” Simonds said to the panel.

Committee chair Del. William Wampler, R-Washington, asked to revisit the bill after questions were raised.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, requested that an attorney look over the bill to determine whether the word hotel also encompasses motels, lodges and campgrounds, or if the bill should identify each individual lodging term.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Hopewell, echoed Brewer’s sentiment and asked if the bill could be amended to allow employees up to a year upon start of employment to complete the training rather than the proposed six months. Coyner said giving employees a year will help from having too many people cycling through the training at once due to staff turnover.

Coyner said that her local police department does in person training with hotels on human trafficking and she is concerned the online option would prevent employees from getting “in depth” training.

Coyner asked Simonds to determine how different localities currently conduct training through law enforcement. Simonds said she has been in close contact with the DCJS who she believes are in contact with law enforcement but that she would further communicate with DCJS on the bill.

Coyner also wanted clearer language regarding how the DCJS would keep records of employees so that they would not have to complete the course again if they moved hotels and would know when the recertification process was due.

Simonds said she remains optimistic about the bill and will work on the suggested items.

“The issues that people were bringing up, I think we can work with,” Simonds said in an interview after the meeting.

Patrick McKenna, co-founder of the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking, voiced support for the bill. It is important for hotel employees to understand “what they’re seeing and what to do when they see it” in order to help discourage trafficking, McKenna said.

Legislators approved a bill last year requiring casino employees who deal with the public to complete a training course in how to recognize and report human trafficking. Simonds sponsored the legislation, which went into effect July 1.

Human trafficking is an ongoing issue in the state that is nearly impossible to quantify, according to a 2019 DCJS report. The General Assembly has passed several bills in past years to combat the human rights issue. Legislators created a statewide Sex Trafficking Response Coordinator position in 2019. The coordinator is tasked with creating an annual report for addressing sex trafficking in Virginia.

The DCJS noted in its recent annual report that more funding and resources are needed for training.

Simonds is also working on a bill to add a common definition of human trafficking to the state code.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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