New measure would make paying for sex a felony in North Carolina, require human trafficking training for hotel staff

North Carolina lawmakers have approved legislation that would make soliciting prostitution a felony while requiring hotel operators and vacation rental owners to complete mandatory training for recognizing the signs of human trafficking.

HB 971, which passed both the state House and Senate this week, would require employees of hotels and other lodging establishments and vacation rentals like Airbnb and Vrbo to undergo human trafficking awareness training developed by the North Carolina Department of Labor.

The Department of Labor would develop that training regimen in cooperation with the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lodging establishments would be required to ensure that front desk, food service and housekeeping staff complete the training, where they will learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking victims on their premises. The measure also calls for a standardized procedure for reporting suspected human trafficking to law enforcement and for hotels to display conspicuous signage with information on the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

North Carolina is among the states most affected by human trafficking, according to the state Department of Administration (DOA). With 390 trafficking victims served by service agencies that received state funding in 2020, it ranks ninth in the nation for incidence of the crime, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Because human trafficking is a crime which hides in the shadows, the true number of cases in North Carolina is likely much higher,” the DOA said on its website.

The state features major interstate highways, a large and transient military population, numerous rural agricultural areas with a high demand for cheap labor, and an increasing number of gangs, all of which make it a hotbed for human trafficking, according to the DOA. Women, especially young women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and unhoused people are especially vulnerable.

Another section of the bill elevates solicitation of prostitution from a misdemeanor to a felony, though people engaging in prostitution are not in violation of the law. The legislation also would protect the identities of human trafficking victims who report their experiences, said Rep. Kevin Crutchfield, a Republican representing Rowan and Cabarrus counties.

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican representing Greene, Wayne and Wilson counties, called the legislation a “legacy bill” that was needed “for people to know that North Carolina is not the state to traffic another human being.”

The bill lays out $450,000 for state courts to implement human trafficking awareness efforts and to partially fund the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. The Department of Labor also would get $50,000 to develop and administer the required training program.

Property managers of vacation rentals would be required to implement a procedure for reporting suspected human trafficking occurring at vacation rentals before listing a vacation rental.

Failing to follow the training requirements could saddle property owners or managers with a $500 fine for a first violation, $1,000 for a second violation and $2,000 for third and subsequent failures to comply.

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