Credit: Matt Rota

This story updates our Rape on the Night Shift investigation.

Simon Brooks was broke and homeless after his idea for a Scrabble-like app failed. He kept sticking around the startup accelerator where he’d been working and eventually found his next idea.  

The accelerator wanted him to clean the bathroom. At first, he was offended. But then he looked into it, and, as Brooks recently told San Jose Inside, he found an industry built on low wages and workplace abuse.

Brooks’ company, Squiffy Clean, is paying higher wages and offering equity to his first 25 cleaners. It’s also sending workers out in teams to prevent sexual abuse.

“We go out in a group,” he told San Jose Inside. “Safety in numbers. We want to do better by our people.”

Brooks credits our investigation into the sexual abuse of night shift janitors, Rape on the Night Shift, for his decision. The investigation uncovered serious sexual abuse in the janitorial industry and the failure of companies large and small to prevent it. It was a collaboration between Reveal, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, KQED, FRONTLINE and Univision.

I knew about the low pay and culture of fear and that’s what got me started, but, I didn’t know just how fearful some workers had to be. Your documentary opened my eyes wider,” Brooks said in an email to the Investigative Reporting Program.

Janitors told us that working in teams was one simple solution to the problem, as night shift janitors often work alone – at night, once everyone else has gone home for the day. Often, only their supervisor knows their whereabouts.

Here’s what Bernice Yeung wrote in her piece on ways to stop sexual abuse on the night shift:

We asked janitors from across the country what they’d like their bosses to do to help prevent workplace harassment and assault. They told us that there’s a fix to the risky isolation of the night shift: team cleaning. In team cleaning, each worker takes on a specific task. It’s a system that can be more efficient, but janitorial companies have said it requires more expertise and training and demands more repetitive work from the cleaners. Stephen Lerner, a labor leader, said team cleaning shouldn’t have a significant cost for big companies, though it could be hard for those with few workers and sometimes can be used to unfairly increase the workload. But done correctly, it could improve worker safety and cut down on potential legal costs that come with being hit with harassment lawsuits.

Since the project’s release, the largest janitorial company in the country – one with a history of facing accusations of allowing abuse – agreed to have an independent third party review accusations. Government and nonprofit organizations say they’ve begun to use the documentary for training.

Andrew Donohue can be reached at adonohue@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @add.

Andrew Donohue is the deputy editor for Reveal. He works with the audience team to find out what the public needs from – and what it can contribute to – our reporting. Stories Donohue has reported and edited have led to criminal charges, firings and reforms in public housing, pesticide use, sexual harassment and labor practices, among other areas. As a reporter and editor, he’s won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and others. Previously, Donohue helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, a pioneering local news startup. He was a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, where he worked on deepening engagement with investigative reporting. He serves on the IRE board of directors.