America’s largest janitorial company, ABM Industries Inc., faces new allegations that it ignores sexual abuse in the workplace, years after it agreed in numerous legal settlements to change how it handles such cases.
Three times since 2000, the federal government had sued the company for failing to prevent sexual violence in the workplace. Each time, it agreed to make improvements.
Then, in a separate settlement in 2015, ABM promised to change how it responded to on-the-job rape allegations.
But three current cases out of Fresno, California, highlight a persistent phenomenon: Female janitors say that their supervisors exploit their power – and the isolation of the night shift – to violently harass them, while their employer looks the other way. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and its reporting partners – UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, KQED, FRONTLINE and Univision – first documented this abuse in 2015.
New documents show the company still has problems with sexual violence.
According to recent reports to the local police department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, three female ABM janitors say that over the course of more than a decade, they were sexually harassed while cleaning Citibank branches, the offices of Telemundo and medical clinics.
The current Fresno cases are an illustration of how, in the midst of the #MeToo movement and new efforts to include low-wage workers in the national conversation about sexual harassment, sexually abused janitors say they continue to face real barriers – such as the threat of deportation or losing the financial lifeline of their jobs – when they try to report the problem.
ABM is a publicly traded company based in New York City that employs about 70,000 janitors across the country. The company declined to be interviewed about the allegations made by the three women because of ongoing legal claims. But in a statement, ABM said it takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously, and responded quickly to the complaints by the Fresno janitors. The accused men no longer work for ABM, the company said.
Some of the harassment the women report happened while the company was under a court-ordered agreement with the federal government to improve how it handles sexual harassment. That arrangement came as a result of a lawsuit in the Central Valley of California, which included allegations from Fresno.
“This is a pervasive problem that is so big and has been around for so long, there is really no way to say that the company was not aware of the possibility – indeed the probability – that there were women facing this kind of abuse,” said Jennifer Reisch, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, who is one of the lawyers representing the three women.
The three Fresno janitors complained to the company about the behavior in spring 2017, and ABM placed them on paid leave while it looked into the matter. But the company has refused to share the outcome of its investigation with them.
A form letter that the company sent to each woman in August says, “Understandably, for reasons of confidentiality, all of the actions ABM has taken as a result of that investigation cannot be shared,” although the company assured the workers that the accused supervisors would no longer be assigned to the buildings where they worked. The company did not tell the women whether it believed the harassment occurred or whether the men had been punished.
The way the company responded to the janitors’ sexual harassment claims drove them to file complaints with the EEOC last fall.
In one case, a janitor named Mercedes said that for nearly 15 years, she had reported to work at dusk to clean empty buildings in California’s Central Valley for ABM. While she was on the clock, her direct supervisor regularly watched pornography from his truck, masturbated in front of her while he propositioned her and made obscene comments about her body, according to documents she submitted to the EEOC.
(Mercedes is a pseudonym because Reveal does not use the names of people reporting sexual violence without their permission. The name of the supervisor was blacked out in the documents provided by the women’s attorneys.)
For years, Mercedes said she felt pressured to stay quiet about the harassment because her boss threatened to fire her or get her deported. She also told the government that she had not reported the harassment to the company sooner because ABM had never clearly explained how she could make a complaint. This echoes what other janitors have said in previous cases.
Mercedes finally went to the police in 2014 after she says her supervisor tried to rape her in his car under the pretense of taking her to a new work site. But even then, she told the police she was too fearful of deportation and losing her job to move forward with the case.
Last spring, Mercedes went back to the police. She says that several months before, the supervisor had cornered her in a cramped supply closet.
“The suspect then pulled out his penis from his pants and told the victim to give him oral sex,” the police report states. “The victim stated no and turned away from him. The suspect then grabbed the victim’s hand and tried to get her to touch his penis.”
Mercedes says she was able to push him away, but he continued to harass her. Just days before she filed the report, he “thrusted his groin area toward the rear of the victim’s buttocks,” the report says.
The same supervisor was accused of assaulting another female ABM janitor based in Fresno. In a June 2017 police report, she says that when she was cleaning the kitchen of a Citibank branch years before, the supervisor had grabbed her and raped her with his finger by placing “a foot between her legs so she couldn’t close them and forced his left hand down her pants.”
The accusations extended beyond a single supervisor. A third janitor said that another male foreman tried to kiss her and take off her pants. He also made lewd comments and showed her pictures on his cellphone of what he described as his erect penis, she said.
After the women reported the attacks to the company last spring, ABM hired an outside investigator to look into their rape and attempted rape claims, which the company is required to do as part of the 2015 settlement of a San Francisco sexual harassment case also handled by attorney Reisch.
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.
For an updated version of the documentary, watch FRONTLINE and listen to the Reveal podcast.
While recent cases involving high-profile women have led to firings and resignations, the claims of many low-wage workers have not resulted in real accountability.
Reisch said this is the case with ABM.
“The company’s response was so outrageous, was so appalling, it was something close to infuriating,” Reisch said. “The company, like many companies, still, as its first instinct – and second one – is to close ranks and to try to protect the status quo, and that has to change.”
ABM said that it disagreed with how it has been portrayed in our reporting because it doesn’t reflect ABM’s “full commitment to providing a safe workplace.”
“ABM is proud of our industry-leading anti-harassment program,” the statement said.
And in settling the lawsuits that have been filed against it, the company does not admit wrongdoing. It has also won sexual harassment cases, including a trial involving another Fresno cleaner.
David Huerta, president of the janitors union in California, said ABM has improved the way it handles sexual harassment among its members. In the past, he said, the company tended to take the supervisor’s side when it received a sexual harassment complaint.
The company also signed a labor contract last spring that added provisions for addressing sexual harassment.
“ABM has become better allies in the sense of understanding that they have a role to play in this, that deniability is no longer acceptable,” Huerta said. “Do I think they’re 100 percent cured? I don’t think so.”
The company had been uniquely troubled by sexual harassment complaints. It is among a rare group of American companies that have been sued multiple times by the federal government for sexual harassment.
In lawsuits, janitors have complained that the company failed to take their reports of sexual harassment seriously. In the San Francisco case that resulted in the 2015 settlement, a supervisor dissuaded a janitor who said she had been raped by her manager from calling the police. In another case filed by the federal government, the company did not talk to a church volunteer who said he saw a supervisor try to attack a janitor. That supervisor turned out to be a registered sex offender and other janitors say he went on to attack them.
The conditions of night-shift janitorial work foster sexual violence. According to a 2016 report by UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program, the combination of isolation, vulnerable workers, poorly trained managers and layers of subcontracting contribute to a “perfect storm” that allows harassment to flourish.
Reisch said that given these conditions, ABM could be more proactive in trying to protect its workers by doing more targeted and direct outreach about sexual harassment.
“A company like ABM, that knows that its workforce is comprised of thousands of women who are working at night, alone, who have vulnerabilities as the result of the conditions in which they work – they need to take extra steps,” she said. “They can’t just wait until the next rape happens.”
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nadia Wynter.
Bernice Yeung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author of the book, “In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers” (The New Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.