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

They stayed silent because they were ashamed. Embarrassed. Because they didn’t think they’d be believed. Because they needed to keep their jobs to feed their kids. Because no one can hear you when you work alone at night.

But a growing number of female night shift janitors in California are publicly telling their stories of on-the-job rape, sexual assault and harassment to support a state bill aimed at preventing workplace sexual violence. That bill took a major step forward this week and is now just awaiting the governor’s signature.

For months, janitors have marched, rallied and testified at community events and in the statehouse about the dangers of working alone at night. This week, Leticia Soto was one of more than a half-dozen women who faced a crowd of strangers at an event in Oakland. An immigrant and single mother from Mexico, Soto cleans Southern California buildings at night to provide for her three kids.

But the isolation of the job has its risks. Her voice was taut as she told the crowd in Oakland about how her supervisor raped her one night: “He finally threw me to the floor, and I kept fighting him. And he said: ‘Just stop, and I’ll make sure you can keep your job, and you can keep cleaning this building.’ And that’s the night he had his way with me.”

As she left her job that night, she threw her keys at her abuser. He responded by telling her: No one will believe you because you are an immigrant.

“All of us deserve respect and safety in our job,” she said. “And for this reason, we say, ‘Enough is enough with the harassment and abuse.’ “

This week, the California bill supported by night shift cleaners like Soto was approved by the state Assembly. It’s now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting either a signature or a veto. (If the governor does not act by Sept. 30, it will automatically become law.)

The final version of the bill would require all janitorial companies to register every year with the state, which worker advocates say will hold cleaning firms accountable for everything from wage theft to sexual harassment. Currently, the industry can be diffuse and difficult to monitor, populated by both large corporations and small, hard-to-track operations.

And the legislation, which was also prompted by our Rape on the Night Shift project, would require that the entire industry – from janitors to supervisors to employers – receive sexual violence and harassment prevention training every other year starting in 2019.

By 2020, the registration and renewal process will require that janitorial companies complete the training. In the meantime, employers would pass out education materials on sexual harassment.

Alejandra Valles, an organizer with the janitorial union, says that training can provide the “aha” moments that some women immigrant workers need to report sexual harassment and assault. “She does not always realize that some of what she is experiencing is rape or harassment or assault,” said Valles of the Service Employees International Union-United Workers West. The bill was sponsored by the SEIU California State Council and the civil rights organization Equal Rights Advocates.

Valles added that too many cleaners think lewd or sexually violent behavior is “just the culture of the buildings at night.”

Earlier versions of the bill included a provision requiring workers to clean in teams. But Valles said that in the end, advocates didn’t know enough about whether it would disrupt things like janitors’ full-time work schedules. The union is now thinking of non-legislative fixes for reducing night shift isolation, such as finding a way for janitors to coordinate with security guards.

“I don’t know how it will play out,” Valles said of the bill’s future, “but every day we don’t do something is another day that we’re not empowering women to speak out and to change the culture of where they are working and the industry they’re in.”

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.