California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has authored a bill that would increase protections for female janitors who work at night. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Female janitors working alone at night have been particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and reluctant to report it. Now, California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said at a rally outside the Capitol today, it’s time for change.

Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, announced at the rally that her office is working on a bill that would increase protections for female janitors.

Gonzalez said she was moved to tears by the documentary “Rape on the Night Shift,” a collaboration among Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, KQED, Frontline and Univision. It inspired her to improve conditions for women who are subject to abuse while cleaning buildings alone at night.

“We as a society for too long have just not bothered to look. We don’t see it, so we don’t try,” Gonzalez said. “It’s time to shine a light on that.”

Gonzalez’s office is working on a bill that she plans to introduce this year and considering ideas such as requiring that women work in pairs, increasing requirements to screen janitors and supervisors, mandating sexual harassment training, and educating women about their rights.

“There are times that what is happening is so tragic you really have to look at every option,” she said. “This is assault and rape. Obviously, it’s something we would never allow to happen, and we need to take the steps necessary to prevent it. And I hope we can.”

The investigation found rampant sexual violence against female janitors who work alone at night in empty offices and businesses. Janitors across the country said one simple solution would be having them work together in teams.

The Sacramento, California, rally, held on International Women’s Day, was planned in coordination with others in Los Angeles and San Diego for immigrant women.

Maria Trujillo spoke to about 200 union members gathered on the north steps of the Capitol, recounting that she had been sexually assaulted while working as a janitor.

“I felt I was ashamed, and I felt dirty, and I felt used,” she said through a translator.

She said her perpetrator was fired, but she knows other women who did not see a simple resolution to the same problem.

“Women, speak out and speak out loudly. Let’s not be afraid, because we need to end this,” Trujillo said.

Sandra Diaz, policy director for the Service Employees International Union, also spoke at the rally. She said that after the film aired, a janitor told her that her supervisor had raped her twice. But she had to keep working to provide for her daughter.

“I’m so proud to be in the company of such courageous women who aren’t afraid to lift up their voices and say the time for change is now,” Diaz said.

After the event, Diaz said the union screened the film for its top leaders. She said some spoke up to say that they had been harassed on the job. She said men spoke out, too.

“Even men in the industry say ‘we’ve seen this happen, and as men, we have a role to fix it,’ ” she said.

Diaz said the union surveyed 5,000 of its members and found that the issue of sexual harassment at work had risen to the third-most important issue. She said the union is working with Gonzalez on the legislation and hopes to see the workers get better wages, as well.

The rally coincided with the release of a UC Berkeley Labor Center report that also examines sexual harassment of janitors. Helen Chen, an attorney with UC Berkeley School of Public Health’s Labor Occupational Health Program, who worked on the report, said researchers found that isolation gives rise to the harassment, and womens’ immigration status often prevents them from making reports

Chen said researchers will begin another phase of work next month, examining ideas that could help workplaces prevent the harassment. She said ideas they’re looking at include having janitors clean offices during the day or crafting more effective employer sexual harassment policies.

Christina Jewett can be reached at cjewett@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @By_CJewett.

Christina Jewett

Christina Jewett is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and workplace issues with a focus on the workers' compensation system. With reporting partner Will Evans and CNN, she exposed widespread fraud and failed government oversight of California’s network of addiction treatment centers for the poor. The stories led to the defunding of more than 200 rehab clinics and changes in state law. The Emmy-nominated series won the 2013 broadcast award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. Jewett – as part of California Watch, a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting – won the 2011 George Polk Award for medical reporting with Lance Williams and Stephen K. Doig. The series exposed outsized rates of rare but lucrative medical conditions at a rapidly growing hospital chain and spurred a federal investigation. She was also a Livingston Award finalist in 2010. Previously, Jewett worked at ProPublica and The Sacramento Bee, where a story she broke about contracting malfeasance led to arrests and convictions. She and a colleague also chronicled jail abuse and medical mistreatment, spurring countywide policy reforms. Those stories were honored with awards from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Jewett is based in Sacramento, California.