Protesters block a street outside the Capitol during a demonstration to support a measure aimed at protecting female custodial workers May 31 in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Night-shift janitors in California are pushing hard on a number of fronts to earn more protections against the on-the-job sexual assault and harassment. They’re lobbying for a new law that’s moving quickly through the state Legislature, retooling union contracts and even getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience.

In the statehouse, a bill that seeks to curb sexual violence among janitors continues to move forward after passing the Assembly this week.

The proposed law, the Property Services Workers Protection Act, would require that janitorial businesses train all of their employees on sexual violence and harassment. The state’s labor commissioner would generate training materials specific to the industry. It also could force companies to have female janitors work in pairs, a simple fix that workers have said would end the isolation that can make their workplace especially susceptible to sexual abuse.

Janitorial firms also would need to register with the state so they can be monitored for abuses such as sexual harassment and violence. Companies that fail to register could face administrative and financial penalties.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, introduced the bill in response to 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. The project documented how female immigrant janitors are vulnerable targets of sexual violence because they tend to work in isolation and face a number of barriers to reporting the crime.

The bill now will be taken up for discussion by the state Senate in August. If the Senate votes in favor of the bill, it will go the the governor to be signed into law.

The California Chamber of Commerce is among the organizations that oppose the bill because it believes some of the measures are extreme and the cost of compliance is too high.

The Assembly vote came two days after nine janitors and union leaders were arrested during a rally in Sacramento in a show of support for the legislation. The activists blocked traffic at an intersection near the state Capitol, sitting on the pavement and unfurling a banner that read, “End Rape on the Night Shift.” They were cited and released by the Sacramento Police Department for failure to disperse.

“I’m proud to see so many women coming together to speak out against abuse in their workplace,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Shame and silence empower the rapists and abusers, so we are here to say there is no shame in speaking out – there is only shame in doing nothing to stop it.”

Support for Gonzalez’s legislation is part of a larger effort to tackle workplace sexual violence by the union that represents California janitorial workers, the Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West.

Alejandra Valles, an officer for the union, says workplace sexual violence is one of the top issues its members want to address. She notes that a majority of cleaners in California are immigrant women who want to go to work without fear of sexual abuse.

“We can’t be a janitors union if we don’t do anything about this,” she said. “We have to take on this issue that is rampant in this industry.”

The janitorial union has successfully negotiated new contract terms aimed at curtailing sexual harassment for workers in Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Under these agreements, supervisors are not allowed to date workers, and cleaning companies will make improvements in how they conduct sexual harassment investigations, among other provisions.

The union is trying to add similar clauses to the contracts it is currently negotiating in Sacramento and San Diego.

The union also has initiated six-week group training for janitors related to sexual violence with the East Los Angeles Women’s Center and the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, which advocates on behalf of nonunionized janitors.

“We want to figure out how to build infrastructure within our members to educate them on what this is and what the recourses are and can they do something to protect themselves – in the same way that we have done around issues like wage theft,” Valles said of the group training.

A recently released report from UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program confirms that janitorial workers are uniquely at risk for workplace sexual violence.

“The industry is structured in such a way that it isolates vulnerable workers and creates a condition where there are not always a lot of options for reporting,” said Helen Chen, one of the authors of the report.

Fear of retaliation for reporting harassment or assault and the industry’s reliance on a nontransparent system of subcontracting also puts janitors at risk, the report said.

The sexual violence that immigrant workers face goes far beyond the janitorial industry. We previously reported on the rape and assault of farmworkers. And an upcoming event organized by the Coalition Against Workplace Sexual Violence in Chicago will address the sexual harassment and assault of women who work in industries such as hotels and restaurants.

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

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.