The night shift janitor is an easy target. Working in isolation, cleaners across the country say they have been harassed, assaulted and raped by supervisors and co-workers while tidying office buildings, shopping malls and universities, as our investigation exposed.

It’s an ugly phenomenon. But there are ways to tackle it. Some of them are simple, and some already are being tested.

Take the isolation, for example.

Here’s how one of the women in our story, Erika Morales, described it:

There’s no one to ask for help when certain things happened and you screamed. No one can hear. And there are certain places where there are no cameras. There’s no sound. There’s nobody.

One promising solution that already has been tried with great success: switching janitors to the day shift. When offices and stores are bustling, it’s less likely that a worker will be caught alone. In fact, day shift cleaning is de rigueur in Canada and Europe.

In the United States, business owners often require companies to clean at night because they think office workers or customers will be inconvenienced by it.

This story is part of Rape on the Night Shift, a collaboration between Reveal, FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, Univision and KQED.


This hasn’t been the case in Minneapolis, where for the past five years, the county government building has been cleaned during the day.

Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union in Minneapolis, said the arrangement has benefitted everyone. The building’s electricity bill has gone down by about $100,000 per year because it no longer needs to be lit brightly at night. There are fewer complaints about the quality of cleaning because concerns can be addressed immediately by the janitor. And there’s lower turnover of janitors, who now work more family-friendly hours.

“It’s a win-win-win,” Morillo-Alicea said, “and it does eliminate the context where bad stuff can happen.”

This is just one of many potential solutions that could help address on-the-job sexual assault among some of the country’s most invisible workers. Here’s a list of others:

Have janitors work in teams rather than alone.

We asked janitors from across the country what they’d like their bosses to do to help prevent workplace harassment and assault. They told us that there’s a fix to the risky isolation of the night shift: team cleaning.

In team cleaning, each worker takes on a specific task. It’s a system that can be more efficient, but janitorial companies have said it requires more expertise and training and demands more repetitive work from the cleaners. Stephen Lerner, a labor leader, said team cleaning shouldn’t have a significant cost for big companies, though it could be hard for those with few workers and sometimes can be used to unfairly increase the workload. But done correctly, it could improve worker safety and cut down on potential legal costs that come with being hit with harassment lawsuits.

Don’t assume a bad memory means a victim isn’t credible.

Sexual assault and rape largely are crimes committed in private. Witnesses are rare, and even physical evidence isn’t definitive proof of a crime.

“The mythology in popular culture is that a rape victim is going to present to the emergency room, battered with black eyes and with terrible bruising around the thighs, but the evidence is rarely that clear,” said Joshua Marquis, a board member of the National District Attorneys Association and chief prosecutor in Astoria, Oregon.

So whether a victim finds justice in the courts hinges almost entirely on the victim’s credibility.

That means a case’s fate might rest on whether a victim properly remembers details, such as the calendar date or what she was doing right before being attacked. Defense attorneys seize on questions like this. And workplace investigators, detectives, judges and juries can decide a woman isn’t credible because she can’t get these details straight.

But a faulty memory can be a direct byproduct of trauma.

David Lisak, a leading clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse, said there’s an extensive body of neurobiology to explain a victim’s tenuous memory of an attack. He said that during a life-threatening event, two chemicals – dopamine and norepinephrine – flood the brain. This has the effect of jamming up how someone processes what is happening.

“What people notice when they go through an experience like that is they say they can’t think straight,” said Lisak, a retired psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has published extensively on sexual violence.

These chemicals scramble the part of the brain that helps us remember things in order. Instead, a jarring event “results in flashes of memory, intense fragments” that are completely disconnected from each other in time, he said.

Taken out of context, the fitful memories of traumatized people can be devastating for their legal cases, whether they’re criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits.

“There are a lot of reasons why victims of sexual violence don’t receive justice,” Lisak said. “This, of course, is one of them – the fact that we, investigators, are not yet trained the way we need to be.”

This is borne out in the numbers. The federal government says 9 percent of sexual assaults and rapes reported to the police result in an arrest – even though studies say only between 2 and 8 percent of all sexual assault accusations are false.

Lisak and experts like him are trying to address this misunderstanding head-on by training law enforcement, the U.S. military and judges on how to interview victims and understand the ways that sexual assault affects their memory.

Agencies in charge of workplace safety don’t pay attention to sexual violence. They could start.

It’s the job of state labor departments and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make sure that workers are safe on the job. They have the authority to tackle workplace violence. But Jordan Barab, OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said he does not know of any instances in which the agency has tackled a workplace rape case.

So people such as Vicky Marquez are doing the work that no one else seems willing to do.

She blasts through Orange County, California, in a Honda SUV, listening to syrupy love songs in Spanish as the GPS on her phone directs her through a monotonous landscape of office parks. In the dark, the buildings are almost beautiful in the way they glow from within. Sometimes, as Marquez pulls into a parking space, she can make out the singular figure of a janitor, backlit in the window, passing with a vacuum or wiping down a window.

Marquez works for the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a janitor watchdog group that is funded by unionized cleaning companies. Through these nighttime expeditions to the hinterlands of Orange County, Marquez – a former janitor herself – chats and charms her way into office buildings to uncover labor problems among some of the hardest-to-reach workers. It’s through office building visits and persistent follow-up phone calls that Marquez and a team of seven other undercover investigators like her earn the workers’ trust.

In the process of meeting janitors where they are, the organization has discovered that the isolation of night shift cleaning means that sexual assault is one of the unspoken occupational hazards workers can confront.

It’s a model the government agencies could follow.

For more on the government angle, listen to KQED’s radio piece:

Talk to your building’s janitor and janitorial company.

Because night shift janitors are some of the most invisible workers, the most important thing the public can do is to talk to the company cleaning their offices.

  • Does the janitorial firm have anti-harassment policies in place?
  • What do they do to make sure their workers are safe on the night shift?
  • Do they make it easy for workers to report sexual harassment? How?

There’s a lot of subcontracting in the janitorial industry, so you could also ask to learn more about who is actually doing the cleaning in your building.

What’s clear from our reporting is that cleaning companies are eager to please the client – and that could be you.

Revamp the system for reporting abuse.

Companies, lawyers, law enforcement officers and advocates all say they can’t help unless someone comes forward.

But reporting a rape or sexual assault can be difficult. Only one-third of sexual assault and rape victims report the crime. It’s a taboo topic, people are afraid they won’t be believed or they just don’t want to relive it. In the end, reporting the incident is a deeply personal choice.

But Jessica Ladd is trying to make it easier. She was assaulted in college. When she went to the school administration and the police to report what had happened, she found the experience extremely upsetting.

Today, as the founder and CEO of an organization called Sexual Health Innovations, she has developed a website for universities called Callisto that walks a victim through all of the steps for reporting a sexual assault or rape.

The system timestamps the victim’s anonymous and confidential online record, which could be helpful later if the victim decides to pursue a legal case. So someone who has been assaulted can document the incident right away, timestamp it and save the record until she is ready to send it to the police or other authorities. Users also can submit their report to a centralized database that can monitor for repeat offenders.

Callisto is being tested at the University of San Francisco and Pomona College starting in August. Ladd hopes to add languages besides English, and she’s planning to explore ways to adapt the program for companies that want to use it as a tool to address workplace sexual harassment and assault.

In the meantime, the technology is based on open-source code, so an enterprising, tech-savvy person can find it on GitHub come August and could get working on adapting the program right away.

Bosses need to take action.

Severe sexual harassment is undeniably a challenging issue for employers to deal with – especially on the night shift.

Companies can’t stop bad things from happening altogether, but they can draft anti-harassment policies and create straightforward ways to report a problem. They also can do regular training to make sure everyone on staff knows how to identify sexual harassment and what to do if something happens.

But none of those things matter unless bosses respond quickly and effectively to complaints of harassment. Louise Fitzgerald, a University of Illinois professor emeritus who designed the way researchers measure workplace sexual harassment, said studies have consistently shown one thing: “If a company sends a strong message that it does not tolerate this behavior, there will be less sexual harassment.”

Because these often are he-said, she-said cases, company internal investigations can end in a draw – they’re deemed inconclusive. That can effectively send the message that concerning behavior will be tolerated.

But companies often misunderstand the standard of proof that they are being held to when investigating a sexual harassment complaint, said Stephen Hirschfeld, CEO of the Employment Law Alliance, a global network of attorneys who represent companies.

“You are not held to the standard of the courtroom,” he said. “You are not a lawyer or a judge. You are held to the standard of common sense.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for policing companies for sexual harassment, is trying to take things a step further. It has convened a special task force to figure out how to solve workplace harassment.

If you have ideas on how to prevent sexual harassment, let the commission know – it is currently taking suggestions from the public.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Bernice Yeung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.