Protesters hold hands as they block the street outside the Capitol during a demonstration in support of a measure aimed at protecting women custodial workers, Tuesday, May 31, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Hundreds rallied in support of a bill, AB1978, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, to protect female workers in janitorial positions from sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Credit: Courtesy of SEIU United Service Workers West

“End Rape on the Night Shift.”

That’s been the motto for California janitors who for months have held demonstrations throughout the state, who have been arrested for blocking traffic in an act of civil disobedience, and who have fasted near the state Capitol to show support for survivors of workplace sexual assault. They’ve even posted the message on billboards in the San Francisco Bay Area that depict a female cleaner who is being grabbed and silenced.

These actions were a way of publicizing a problem that immigrant night shift cleaners say they frequently confront. It also was an effort to persuade California Gov. Jerry Brown to put his signature to legislation aimed at preventing the sexual harassment and violence of janitors at work.

On Thursday evening, nearly a half-dozen female janitors ended their fourth day of fasting. They were seated on blankets on a shady lawn near the Capitol building when they learned that the governor had signed the bill into state law. They collapsed into a teary group hug and there was a triumphant chant of “Sí, se pudo,” or “Yes, we did.”

The legislation, which was inspired by our Rape on the Night Shift investigation, will create a registry of janitorial firms in California, which worker advocates say makes it easier to hold problematic companies accountable for violations ranging from wage theft to sexual assault. It will also require sexual harassment training for everyone who works at a janitorial company. An advisory group made up of state officials, the janitorial union, advocates and employers will help design the training.

California employs the largest number of janitorial workers in the country.

The bill emerged after the janitorial union, the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, conducted a survey of its members in early 2016.

About 5,000 of the state’s janitors responded to the questionnaire and more than 25 percent said they had experienced sexual violence or harassment at work. Janitors also listed sexual harassment as one of the top three issues that they wanted the union to address. New provisions addressing sexual harassment have since been incorporated into union contracts.

Both the bill and the union contract negotiations created a path and a purpose for night shift janitors to come forward on a topic that they had previously guarded in silence. They say that they never spoke about on-the-job sexual violence because of shame, fear of deportation and worries about losing their jobs.

Martha Mejia has worked for 10 years as a night shift janitor. At a recent community event in Oakland, she said that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, who used to hide among the office furniture to watch her as she worked. He also harassed her by asking her to lift up her uniform so he could see her rear end, and he even followed her home.

Protesters hold hands as they block the street outside the Capitol during a demonstration in support of a measure aimed at protecting female custodial workers in May in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

“It’s a terrible thing that we suffer through and we stay silent out of fear and shame and ignorance that we can get help from the authorities,” she said. “And I think that we have to say, ‘This is enough.’ We can no longer be quiet; we have to speak up.”

The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, which works with nonunionized janitors, also supported the bill. Sexual harassment and assault has been a difficult topic to broach with workers but it is has become a focus of the organization’s work, said Lilia Garcia, the organization’s executive director.

“Women were not speaking out for the simple fact that they didn’t know their rights,” Garcia said. “We believe that the victim gets to choose and we want to give them the tools to respond deliberately about whether they maintain their silence or not. But a lot of times, they do it out of fear and because they have no idea they can report.”

The legislation was introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who said that the legislation was ushered forward by the janitors themselves. “It was so driven by these women who for so long have sat silent and then, when they tried to speak, no one believed them,” Gonzalez said. “When the union started talking to workers about this issue, people were nervous. It was a few women speaking up and then it was everyone speaking up and then all of us realizing what a problem it is.”

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

Rape on the Night Shift was a collaboration among Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, KQED, FRONTLINE and Univision.

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.