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As the #MeToo movement sweeps across Hollywood, Washington and the world of media, it’s easy to ignore the sexual abuse of women in low-profile jobs. This is especially true in the case of female janitors working the night shift.
Our multiplatform Rape on the Night Shift investigation – a collaboration with KQED, the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, FRONTLINE and Univision – was released in 2015. Since then, it’s helped spur a wave of reforms, including a new law in California that mandates sexual harassment training for all janitorial companies. This week, we’re updating the investigation with new insights and interviews.
First up, Reveal reporter Bernice Yeung and KQED’s Sasha Khokha examine the conditions that led to an epidemic of rape and assault. Female janitors often work alone at night, in buildings that are nearly empty. Some are in the U.S. illegally, which limits their ability to report abuse to law enforcement. And although such incidents are widespread – they occur in tiny mom-and-pop shops and large corporations – one company, ABM Industries Inc., stands out for its pattern of problems. ABM is among a rare group of 15 American corporations that have been sued at least three times by the federal government for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment. The company still is receiving sexual abuse complaints from women.
Next, Khokha and Yeung discuss how the #MeToo moment has changed America’s perspective on sexual assault and what it means for low-wage workers. Although some of the janitors with whom our reporters spoke are happy the issue is getting more attention, they also are asking what took so long.
“Nobody listened to me,” said janitor Georgina Hernandez. “These are women with money, women in Congress, and they get help. They get the attention. They are women who are worth something. But I am a woman who is worth something, too.”
Finally, Reveal host Al Letson chats with Rebecca Corbett, an investigative editor at The New York Times who oversaw the paper’s bombshell exposé on film producer Harvey Weinstein. Corbett explains why her reporters succeeded where so many others had failed, why America was ready for #MeToo and what the movement’s next steps might look like.
- Read: Nation’s largest janitorial company faces new allegations of rape
- Read: A group of janitors started a movement to stop sexual abuse
Deb George and Cheryl Devall edited this show. Amy Walters and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes produced our updates. Thanks to editor Andy Donahue for his help on the night shift story.
Our sound designers are Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Section 1 of 5 [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Oprah Winfrey: So I want all the girls watching here now to know, that a new day is on the horizon!
Al Letson: This is Oprah Winfrey giving her now famous speech at the Golden Globes.
Oprah Winfrey: And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again! Thank you!
Al Letson: Oprah’s speech earlier this month may have been the pinnacle moment for the Me Too movement, which aims to give voice to people who have been victims of sexual assault and rape. Me Too was started by Tarana Burke over 10 years ago, but it didn’t catch fire as a national movement until this fall. The spark was movie producer, Harvey Weinstein. Here’s actress Erika Rosenbaum talking about her encounter with him, and just a warning, her story and others we hear today are pretty graphic.
Erika Rosenbaum: He holds me by the back of the neck and faces me to the mirror, and very quietly tells me that he just wants to look at me, and he starts to masturbate standing behind me.
Al Letson: Other women spoke out as well and suddenly, after years of allegations and rumors of abuse, Harvey Weinstein’s career crumbled. And soon there were more stories, and more careers came crashing down. From politicians like Minnesota Senator Al Franken-
Al Franken: Today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as member of the United States Senate.
Al Letson: … to men in the media. September, Matt Lauer had tough questions for Fox host Bill O’Reilly.
Matt Lauer: You were accused of sexual harassment. You said at the time you did absolutely nothing wrong.
Bill O’Reilly: Correct.
Matt Lauer: Do you stand by that?
Bill O’Reilly: I do.
Al Letson: By November, Lauer himself was out. NBC fired him for inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace. The Me Too movement is spreading beyond Hollywood, the news media and Capitol Hill. Women from all corners of society are now coming forward with their stories. Attention to this issue may be new, but the problem is not. Back in 2013, we teamed up with KQAD radio, the investigative reporting program at UC Berkeley, PBS Frontline, and Univision to look into sexual violence against women janitors.
These are people who clean the buildings many of us work in; scrubbing toilets, taking out the garbage, and vacuuming up the crumbs from our sandwiches. A lot of them are immigrants, some here illegally. They usually work alone at night, and that isolation can leave them vulnerable the team of journalists we mentioned spent a year and a half investigating the industry. Their story was called Rape on the Night Shift and we first aired it in 2015. We revisit it today because it’s rare that these women’s stories hit the front page, even in the era of Me Too. Here’s Sasha Khokha from KQAD in San Francisco.
Sasha Khokha: The lights go out as the daytime office workers leave the building and then, room by room, they flicker back on. Three stories of glass light up like a shadow play. The silhouettes of janitors appear on different floors. One polishing a window, another mopping. Outside, two women hide behind a palm tree, watching.
Vicki Marquez: [foreign language 00:03:55]
Sasha Khokha: Vicki Marquez is less than five feet tall with heels on. Veronica Alvarado has tattoos and green highlights streaking through her hair.
Veronica A: Look, do you see him? There’s a guy walking. He’s passing the vacuum in the second floor.
Sasha Khokha: The women are casing this office park in suburban Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. They’re undercover investigators with a tiny nonprofit that’s trying to root out abuses in the cleaning industry.
Veronica A: So we’re walking around the building to see the possible entry ways.
Sasha Khokha: They’ll sometimes wait for janitors near garbage dumpsters or inside bathroom stalls.
Vicki Marquez: [foreign language 00:04:34]
Sasha Khokha: “Don’t run,” says Marquez. “That makes us look suspicious to the security cameras.”
Veronica A: [foreign language 00:04:46]
Sasha Khokha: “Magic! Magic!” says Alvarado. “The door is still unlocked!”
Vicki Marquez: [foreign language 00:04:50]
Speaker 10: [foreign language 00:04:51]
Vicki Marquez: [foreign language 00:04:52]
Sasha Khokha: On this night, they find janitors who work seven days a week without overtime. Others who have to buy their own cleaning supplies. But once in a while, they’ll meet a woman who confides a darker secret; that she’s being sexually abused on the job.
Our investigation found that sexual violence is a problem at janitorial companies across the nation, from tiny mom and pop shops to big corporations. From companies that operate off the books to those with shares traded on the New York stock exchange. ABM is the nation’s largest janitorial company. It’s among a rare group of 15 American corporations that have been sued at least three times by the federal government for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment. ABM employs nearly 65,000 janitors. They clean major airports, city halls, court houses, and towering office buildings across the country.
That’s the company Maria Magana used to work for. Magana is a tiny woman in her fifties. She’s practically dwarfed by the giant vacuum cleaner she straps onto her back. She’s been cleaning office buildings in California for nearly two decades. We went on a job with her one night.
Maria Magana: I can’t leave it dirty. I dust most of the things. I even dust the signs. I’ll do the windows, I clean them.
Sasha Khokha: Magana even uses a plastic fork to scrape the dust out from the crevices in the window sills. The next day, we went to Magana’s house, even though she was tired from cleaning late at night. She wanted us to come early in the morning, before the neighbors woke up, because she didn’t want them to know what we were there to talk to her about. But when we got to her street on the rural edge of Bakersfield, the neighbors were already playing music and drinking coffee on their front steps.
Maria Magana: Hello. [Spanish 00:06:57]
Sasha Khokha: [Spanish 00:06:58]
Still, Magana wanted to tell us her story. She says her supervisor at ABM used to harass her. When she started talking about that, she was much more comfortable in Spanish.
Maria Magana: [Spanish 00:07:11]
So I hit him with my broom and he said, “Maria, why are you so mad? What am I doing wrong? It’s just a caress. I’m just being affectionate.” I told him, “You get any closer and I’ll hit you with the handle right now.” I told him, “I’m going to spray this cleaner in your eyes.”
Sasha Khokha: But he didn’t stop, and in 2005, Magana says he raped her. She took us to the bank building where she says it happened.
Maria Magana: [Spanish 00:07:46]
Every time I come to pass by this bank, I remember what happened. That’s why I agreed to let you take me; so I could help remind women they should work in places that are well-lit. That they shouldn’t work alone.
Sasha Khokha: The building was closed, but she peered in through the tinted glass door.
Maria Magana: [Spanish 00:08:19]
Behind the stairs is the conference room where that man tricked me, got me into that room. He shoved me as soon as I walked in and raped me.
Sasha Khokha: Magana went to the bathroom, cleaned herself up, and finished working her shift.
Speaker 12: Did you have sex with Maria Magana against her will at the ABM work site?
Jose Vasquez: No.
Sasha Khokha: Three years later, government lawyers deposed Jose Vasquez, the man Magana says raped her.
Speaker 12: Did you rape Maria Magana at the ABM work site?
Jose Vasquez: No.
Sasha Khokha: The deposition was part of a class action lawsuit involving 21 women, including Maria Magana. It was brought by the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That’s the federal agency charged with protecting workers from discrimination. Anna Park was in charge of the case against ABM.
Anna Park: We do not believe they did all they could, and they allowed these women for years to be abused.
Sasha Khokha: She says this was one of the worst cases of sexual harassment she had ever seen, and showed how the company failed to follow its own procedures.
Anna Park: Any good company will say, “Let’s investigate this. Who else is affected? What else is going on?” That didn’t happen here.
Sasha Khokha: The lawsuit claimed that ABM failed to protest the women from harassment and assault in the workplace. Fourteen harassers were named. A dozen of the plaintiffs pointed to one man; supervisor Jose Vasquez. The EEOC found some witnesses, too. Scott Stevenson was volunteering one night at a fundraising dinner at a church in Bakersfield.
Scott Stevenson: Sent some kids out to take some trash-
Section 1 of 5 [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5 [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: … dinner at a church in Bakersfield.
Speaker 2: Sent some kids out to take some trash to the dumpster, and they came back with the trash. They thought somebody was hurt in the dumpster area. I went to go investigate, see what was going on. There was what I believed was a sexual assault taking place right in front of us.
Speaker 1: He saw a janitor he recognized as Jose Vasquez near the dumpster.
Speaker 2: I recall the belt not being buckled all the way on his pants. I remember that jingling.
Speaker 1: He said Vasquez was standing in front of another janitor, a woman.
Speaker 2: His arms were spread almost like a starfish. He was preventing her from leaving that area. Every attempt she made he would grab her or grope her to get her back in front of him. She was crying. She was in tears. She had that help me look on her face.
Speaker 1: Stephenson threw the trash into the dumpster.
Speaker 2: That made a bang …
Speaker 1: … startling Jose Vasquez. Stephenson called the police, and in the report the woman said she was frightened. When the police asked Vasquez to come to the station a few days later he showed up with the woman. They both said that had just been playing around. The police dropped their investigation, but the church sent a letter to ABM, reporting what Stephenson had seen.
Speaker 2: There’s no way that could have been consensual. I’ve never see anybody have a romantic interlude by a maggot-smelling dumpster.
Speaker 1: ABM never interviewed Stephenson. A few months later the company got two anonymous letters alleging that Vasquez was touching and harassing women and that he had a criminal record. “Help us,” said one letter. “Please, send someone to investigate.” At his deposition Vasquez testified that ABM didn’t ask him about the letters.
Speaker 3: Nobody from ABM talked to you about sexual harassment allegations in or around September of 2005, correct?
Jose Vasquez: No, sir. Nobody did.
Speaker 1: The company hadn’t checked his background when he was hired. Vasquez was a convicted rapist on California’s sex offender registry. Government lawyers deposed Timothy Brekke, then a regional vice-president for ABM.
Timothy Brekke: What’s your overall question, please?
Speaker 3: I’m putting the exhibit in front of you to remind you he was convicted of rape by force.
Timothy Brekke: I see that, yes.
Speaker 1: Brekke admitted the company’s human resources department didn’t notice that when Vasquez filled out his job application he left the question about criminal history blank.
Speaker 3: The question is do you think it was a good idea to put someone who was convicted of rape by force supervising women alone in buildings at night?
Timothy Brekke: No.
Speaker 1: Brekke asked why the women didn’t report their alleged attacks to ABM. For example, Maria Magania stayed on the job with Jose Vasquez for a year and a half after she says he assaulted her.
Timothy Brekke: How these things were not reported in a timely manner, how there was no medical backup to some of these things. I need to have more information.
Speaker 3: It’s the fault of the women?
Speaker 6: Objection. Argumentative. You may answer.
Timothy Brekke: I didn’t say that.
Speaker 1: ABM didn’t admit wrongdoing but settled the case in 2010. The 21 women including Maria Magania were awarded a total of nearly $6 million.
Maria Magania: [foreign language 00:13:21]
Speaker 1: Five years later Magania still lives in a cramped house in Bakersfield taking care of her elderly mother and teenage son. She’s the only income earner and says that’s a big reason why she kept working at ABM so long after her attack. She still works as a full-time janitor and says she’s uncomfortable spending the settlement money from the case.
Maria Magania: [foreign language 00:13:44]
Translator: They can give me thousands and thousands of dollars, but to this day I can’t spend the money with joy because I see it as dirty.
Maria Magania: [foreign language 00:13:59]
Translator: That money won’t ease my pain, that filthy stain on my heart from that man who marked me.
Maria Magania: [foreign language 00:14:09]
Translator: It won’t change the past or clean how dirty how feel.
Maria Magania: [foreign language 00:14:17]
Speaker 1: As for Jose Vasquez, he was never charged with any crimes related to the ABM case. We tracked him down, but it wasn’t easy.
Speaker 9: I’m not walking into that [inaudible 00:14:34].
Speaker 1: Hi, pooch. Hi, puppy. Because of his previous rape conviction he’s on California’s sex offender registry, but when we went to that address he moved without notifying authorities.
Speaker 9: Hello.
Speaker 1: We finally found him at a new house, but he didn’t want to be recorded. He said he started his own cleaning company, and he wanted to put the ABM case behind him. Some of those women, he told us, were just money hungry. A few months after settling the EEOC case ABM was featured on national television, a show called Undercover Boss. ABM portrayed itself as a company that takes a lot of pride in its workers.
Speaker 10: Each week we follow the boss of major corporation as they go undercover in their own company.
Speaker 1: ABM’s CEO at the time, Henrik Slipsager, posed as an immigrant looking for work as a janitor.
Speaker 11: The boss will trade in his well-manucured lawn and private tennis court for rolls of toilet paper and squeegee.
Speaker 12: Rub it, rub it.
Speaker 1: On the show a woman janitor taught him how to clean toilets.
Speaker 13: You like it, right?
Speaker 14: I love it. I tell you, I love it.
Speaker 1: She had only one complaint about the company.
Speaker 14: One thing ABM could probably do better is have women wear pants because if I have to run around and bend over I got to make sure somebody else, excuse my language, doesn’t see my [butt behind me 00:15:55] or something like that.
Speaker 1: In the end, impressed with her work ethic, Slipsager gave her a new uniform, a pair of pants instead of a dress. Slipsager and other ABM officials declined our repeated requests for an interview. Just before a deadline they sent us their own videotaped statement.
Speaker 15: Hi. My name is Miranda Tolar, and I’m ABM’s deputy general counsel for employment law.
Speaker 1: Tolar outlined ABM’s commitment to a safe work environment including sexual harassment training for employees and a hotline where they can report concerns or complaints in 100 languages.
Speaker 15: We believe that our policies and procedures are the gold standard in the industry. Our systems work. In some cases we have been made aware of inappropriate behavior and taken action. In other cases allegations of wrongdoing have proven to be false and even malicious often by individuals previously in consensual relationships that ended.
Speaker 1: ABM also sent us a letter saying our reporting is focusing on older cases, and the company has improved their policies and practices since the EEOC case was settled, but we found other lawsuits against ABM. In some of the cases women say they were fired for complaining. The company has fought some harassment cases aggressively even after they lost at trial.
Speaker 16: [foreign language 00:17:13]
Translator: They don’t want to accept reality.
Speaker 16: [foreign language 00:17:16]
Translator: They don’t want to lose.
Speaker 1: Maria Bohorquez is a mother of five and a grandmother. She says she was raped while working the night shift at the San Francisco Ferry Building. ABM investigated but found her allegations inconclusive. Bohorquez sued ABM and in 2012 a jury awarded her more than $800,000. The company appealed. When they went to court in May, 2015 ABM’s attorney told the judges her testimony wasn’t credible.
Speaker 17: She said, “I was sexually harassed on an ongoing basis for many months,” but there was not a single other witness who ever saw any alleged misconduct toward …
Speaker 18: Would we expect another witness in a nighttime shift on a janitorial service where he’s the foreman and she’s assigned to a particular area?
Speaker 17: There are times that they are alone, but there are also times there are other janitors who are working in that same building.
Speaker 1: ABM’s lawyer admitted though that their workers aren’t always safe.
Speaker 17: ABM and its parents because they’re also being sued have tens of thousands of employees located across the United States and internationally, many who work in remote locations at night with minimal supervision. Bad things sometimes happen.
Speaker 1: We’ve been talking about the nation’s largest janitorial company, but the industry is dominated by small businesses that don’t always play by the rules. Lilia Garcia-Brower heads up the team of grassroots investigators that we met earlier. They’re connected to the janitor’s union, but they’re also funded by some big cleaning companies including ABM. The companies say some of the smaller outfits undercut their business.
Lilia Garcia: That’s probably the number one competitor for responsible businesses, are the companies who are paying cash, not paying taxes, not carrying workers’ comp. Frankly, those are types of cases where we’ve seen unreported rape and the more serious physically violent crimes.
Vickey Marquez: Hello.
Speaker 21: Ola, Vicky.
Vickey Marquez: Ola. [inaudible 00:19:26]
Speaker 1: Vicky Marquez and Veronica Alvarado single each other with their headlights. They’re driving around office building parking lots at night looking out for janitors, but there are only a handful of these undercover teams focused on a few cities in California and Massachusetts.
Vickey Marquez: [foreign language 00:19:48] Bye-bye.
Speaker 1: There are some two million janitors in the US, the people who scrub our toilets and vacuum our floors. Sometimes they’re victims of rape.
Section 2 of 5 [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5 [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Sasha Khokha: … our floors. Sometimes they’re victims of rape. But they’re invisible to most of us working on the night shift.
Al Ledson: That was Sasha Khokha from KQED. Rape On The Night Shift was reported by Reveals’s Bernice Yeurng, along with producer Daffodil Altan, Andre Sedyell and Lowell Bergman from the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program. It was produced in collaboration with KQED, Univision and FrontLine. You can also see the documentary we produce with Front Line at revealnews.org/nightshift.
This story first aired in 2015. Now with the MeToo movement, women in every profession are speaking up against workplace harassment and assault. Women working the night shift, they’re learning to fight back.
Marta Mahea: Uno, dos, tres. NO.
Al Ledson: That’s next on Reveal from the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Bernice Yeurng: Hey. Bernice Yeurng here. Like all of you, I’ve been watching at the MeToo movement has thrown a spotlight on the sexual harassment women face in the workplace. It’s an issue my reporting partners and I have been covering since 2012. We’ve exposed the most hidden sexual harassment stories like those of low wage, immigrant workers. In the last couple of years, I’ve been expanding on this work for a book that will be out this spring. It’s called In A Day’s Work: The Fight To End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers.
It takes a hard look at how we fail victims. It also tells the stories of many resilient and inspiring women who have fought back. I hope it’ll give you an in depth understanding of an issue that affects so many women at both ends of the economy. The book again is called In A Day’s Work. You can pre-order it now through your favorite book seller. You can read all of the articles that led to the book at Revealnews.org.
Al Ledson: From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Ledson. Since we first aired Rape On The Night Shift back in 2015, something dramatic has happened. Some of the women are learning how to fight back.
Marta Mahea: No. No. No. No.
Al Ledson: This is a self defense class in Los Angeles where women janitors are learning to use their voices and their bodies to fend off attackers.
Marta Mahea: No.
Al Ledson: They’re practicing on big plastic dummies that have muscles like scary looking dudes. The women are learning to make a fist to punch them in the nose.
Marta Mahea: [foreign 00:23:00]
Al Ledson: That’s woman’s name is Marta Mahea. She’s talking about how to hit an attacker’s nose hard enough to break it and make it bleed. There’re about a dozen women in this class. They’re learning to give kicks to the testicles, and pokes to the eye in case they’re attacked on the job.
Marta Mahea: Alright.
Al Ledson: Remember those undercover investigators? Some of them are former janitors who hang out around buildings at night to talk to workers about their rights. These classes are put on by the same group. Dozens of women have been trained. The idea is to take this to the office buildings and teach women to do self defense on their breaks from cleaning.
For the last couple of years, Sasha Khokha from our partner KQED and Reveal’s Bernice Yeurng have been tracing the developments since Rape on the Night Shift came out. They are in the studio with me now. Bernice, Sasha. Thanks for joining me.
Sasha Khokha: Hey Al.
Bernice Yeurng: Hi Al.
Al Ledson: So, Sasha, the reporting that you guys did actually helped inspire these self defense classes. I mean, women organized around this issue.
Sasha Khokha: That’s right. After Rape on the Night Shift came out, the undercover janitors and the Janitor’s Union in California began to train women. They called them Promotoras. Basically, women who can teach other women to defend their rights on the job and fight back against sexual harassment. Really, what they’re trying to do is create an army of female janitors, each one can train one and then go out to all the buildings and talk to as many other women as possible while they’re on the breaks, maybe even teach them some moves.
Al Ledson: Bernice, tell me about some of the women in this program.
Bernice Yeurng: One of the women who is most memorable to me was a woman named Georgina Hernandez. She used to clean the lobby of a hotel. Her supervisor raped her multiple times on the job. When we first met her several years ago, she was so quiet and nervous, and she could barely utter the words “sexual harassment”. Then, here she was, leading the self defense class. We asked her what it felt like to poke a mannequin in the eye.
Speaker 5: Then, [foreign 00:25:09].
Bernice Yeurng: She banged her fist and said, “Good. I am mad. I wish I could do it for real. It was an amazing transformation.” I have actually been working on a book about this issue, and I followed up with her multiple times over the years. Seeing her transform has just been incredible.
Speaker 5: Oh, maybe that’s [foreign 00:25:31].
Bernice Yeurng: She says that her life is like new. She almost doesn’t recognize herself. She’s more confident and she’s not afraid. She says that she used to be afraid of everything. She’d see herself in her shadow, but now, she’s not afraid of anything.
Speaker 5: [foreign 00:25:49]
Bernice Yeurng: We asked her what was it that changed for her, and do you know what she said? It was finally meeting other women like her, and speaking up about her story. Meeting women through the Promotoras, and understanding that she wasn’t alone.
Al Ledson: So, Rape on the Night Shift, which was an investigation that your team did and became a story that we did here on Reveal. It had a lot of impact. It even inspired a new bill in California.
Bernice Yeurng: Yeah, after Night Shift came out, California Assembly member, Lorena Gonzalez, who is a democrat and comes from a heavily immigrant district in San Diego, she was so moved by our reporting that she decided that she was going to author a bill to try to improve things for janitors. Here she is announcing that bill.
Lorena Gonzalez: To shine a light on this industry and make sure that we hold building owners responsible for the abuses …
Bernice Yeurng: The Promotoras, people like Martha and Georgina, the same women who are in the self defense class, they actually held a hunger strike in Sacramento outside the State Capitol until the bill was signed by Governor Jerry Brown. They were wearing these red bandanas, and they had these T-shirts that said, “Ya Basta”, which in Spanish means, “Enough is enough”, and some of them even put duct tape over their mouths to symbolize silence.
For me, it was really surreal to drive on the freeway here in California when the bill was up for a vote, because there were these huge billboards that said, “End Rape on the Night Shift,” which was the name of our investigation. Here are women cheering. They’re collapsing into a hug, and just crying because the Governor has just signed the bill.
Marta Mahea: [foreign 00:27:25]
Bernice Yeurng: Marta Mahea, she is the janitor who was talking about making a fist earlier. She says the hunger strikers were in shock when they learned that the bill was signed.
Marta Mahea: Thank you, thank you [inaudible 00:27:35]. Thank you [crosstalk 00:27:38] [foreign 00:27:39].
Bernice Yeurng: She said it was a really beautiful and powerful moment for her. When she talks about it, you can even kind of hear her choking up.
Marta Mahea: [foreign 00:27:46].
Bernice Yeurng: She says, “We’ve made history,” and she feels really proud that all of these janitors opened up the space and broke the silence, even the women who are poor and humble, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, what your immigration status is, but nobody should harm your body or touch you, because no means no.
Marta Mahea: [foreign 00:28:12]
Al Ledson: This has got to be a really big deal for these women to be able to get to a place where at one point they were victims, to moving into being empowered to talk about their stories, and basically shift the dynamic, take the power back.
Bernice Yeurng: Yeah, for a lot of these women who participated in the hunger strike, they had never talked about their stories, never told their partners their, husbands, their kids what happened to them. So really coming out publicly in this way was a lot about getting past the shame. I mean, getting past the taboo.
Some of them, like Marta, even said the hunger strike was like a cleansing experience for them. It was like a way for them to take back their bodies and release some of this pent up hurt and fear. When they ended up changing California law, it made them feel like they were powerful, they weren’t powerless anymore. They could make change for themselves.
Al Ledson: So let’s go back to the bill. What exactly does it do to make things better for janitors in California?
Bernice Yeurng: What the new law does is it requires training for all janitors in the state around sexual harassment. That’s really important because a lot of janitors are immigrants, newcomers, and they’re not familiar with the laws of this country. They don’t know how to see legal recourse if sexual harassment happens to them. If these companies don’t follow the sexual harassment training requirement, then they can’t do business in California.
The other really important part of this law is that it creates a registry of janitorial companies in the state. A lot of companies are underground, fly by night operations, and this is really a way to hold them accountable.
Sasha Khokha: And Assembly member, Lorena Gonzalez, the one who authored the law, got members of the Legislative Women’s Caucus in Sacramento to actually wear janitor’s uniforms for a day as a way to raise attention to this issue, and get the bill through. Now, she’s hoping that with all the attention around sexual harassment, she’ll have a political opening to-
Section 3 of 5 [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
Section 4 of 5 [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: With all the attention around sexual harassment, she’ll have a political opening to pass an even more powerful bill. She’s actually introduced a new bill that would make it easier for California workers to report sexual harassment and protect them from retaliation.
Speaker 2: Your story focused mainly on one company, ABM; the biggest janitorial company in the U.S. What’s happened to them since this story came out?
Speaker 3: Well, on the one hand, the janitor’s union in California says that the company used to automatically take the supervisor’s side when they got a complaint of sexual harassment. And now, they’re taking the complaints of the women more seriously.
Speaker 1: And there are questions about how ABM is handling new cases of sexual harassment, especially in places where the workers are not unionized. In fact, we learned about three new cases involving non-union janitors who work for ABM. These are women who are alleging that they were either groped, harassed, or even raped at their job sites. We talked to their attorney, Jennifer Reisch. She’s someone who sued ABM before on behalf of a janitor who was raped, and she says that when she brought these new cases to the company, nothing much had changed.
Speaker 3: The company’s response was so outrageous. Was so appalling. It was something close to infuriating. The company, as its first instinct, is to close ranks and to try to protect the status quo.
Speaker 1: She says that there are some really obvious things that ABM could do better. Not just getting rid of supervisors who are bad apples, but actually promoting more women to be supervisors; changing the culture of the company so that there’s more gender equity across the board.
Speaker 3: It’s not just about, have we gotten rid of all the really creepy guys? That’s not the question that you should be asking. Was there something that would have preventing the company from going out to its workers at night while they were working and actually asking them, “Are you okay? Do you know that your supervisor has to treat you with respect and can’t touch you? And if he is, here’s a confidential way that you can get help.” No. They never did that. They need to take extra steps. They can’t just wait until the next rape happens.
Speaker 2: With all of this going on at their company, all of this documented evidence of what’s been going on at their company, what does ABM have to say about the future, how they’re going to handle this in the future?
Speaker 3: Well, we’ve asked the company multiple times for an interview so that we could have a back and forth conversation with them, both during the original reporting and then more recently. Both times, they declined and sent us written statements. They’ve told us that they’re a very big corporation, so they’re the target for sexual harassment litigation and at the very least, they’re responding to this litigation. They also say that they’re really proud of their industry leading anti-harassment program, and that they have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. In other words, they say that they haven’t been doing anything wrong and they’ve really been doing their best to respond to sexual harassment once they learn about it.
Speaker 1: Yeah, they say they take claims really seriously and they disagreed with how they were portrayed in Rape on the Night Shift, because they say it doesn’t reflect their commitment to really providing a safe workplace.
Speaker 2: What about the men in this? The male janitors who may be committing these abuses or witnessing them, what do they have to say about all this?
Speaker 1: You know, it’s been really interesting, I think, for the janitor’s union here in California is that it’s led to a lot of soul searching for them. Many of the alleged harassers in these situations are janitors too, so they’re union members, too. Or they’re supervisors who have been promoted from being janitors. At least here in California, this wasn’t something that the union really talked about until our investigation came out, and it prompted some discussion. And it prompted a lot of the women to start speaking up. I want to play a clip from union president, David Heurta, talking about what happened when those women started telling their stories.
David Huerta: There was pushback from those male leaders who were like, “Why are we dealing with this?” And it was important for me as a man to be able to step back and say, “Because we have to deal with this. We’re not going to ever be able to really come together as an organization and advocate for real justice in this if only 50% of the people in the room are feeling the justice.”
Speaker 3: So there was a real sea change at the union once they realized how significant of a problem sexual harassment was after our reporting came out. They did a survey, and they were shocked to learn that a majority of their janitors had either witnessed or personal experienced sexual harassment. So they wanted to make it a priority. And there was this really dramatic moment where they called a meeting with hundreds and hundreds of janitors, and a woman went up on the stage with the microphone and talked about how sexual harassment was going to be a priority. And there was a low roar coming from the audience, and it was the men. They were booing her.
The union president, David Huerta, walked over, asked to take the microphone, and called them out on it. He stepped up and he said, “Wait a minute. Don’t tell me you haven’t done this or you haven’t seen it. Enough is enough.” He told them, “These are your mothers, your sisters, your daughters, and you’ve got to stand up for the women who are working alongside you, too.” That was really a turning point within the whole conversation at the union about sexual harassment.
Speaker 1: You know, one of the things that the union did, too, they didn’t just chastise the men. They actually decided they were going to form a group, a men’s group, called [Compadres 00:35:59]. Kind of the male equivalent to the [Promotores 00:36:02], the women. And these men are getting together to talk about these issues. They’re learning how to support the women that they work with, how they can be allies and witnesses if they see sexual harassment or even assault at work.
Speaker 2: I want to shift gears just a little bit and talk about the Me Too movement, which really got its start with Harvey Weinstein and what was going on in Hollywood, and then spread out to different media organizations. Because it’s a ground swell of people coming together to stand up for women who have been sexually abused or harassed in the workplace, but mostly, the focus has been on Hollywood and the media. I’m wondering if the women that we’ve been talking about, these women who are janitors, if they feel like they’re part of that movement.
Speaker 1: You know, we asked women at the self-defense class about that. We asked Georgina Hernandez, one of the women who was leading the training, how she felt. You know, she said she had mixed feelings, seeing all these powerful women in Hollywood and in the corporate world speak out against the kind of thing that had happened to her.
Georgina H: [foreign language 00:37:06]
Speaker 1: She says she’s sad and angry at the same time. On the one hand, these women have money, they’re powerful, they have everything in life that she doesn’t have. And she’s proud of them, because they’re speaking up. But she says, “Who listened to me? Nobody listened to me. These are women with money, women in Congress, and they get help. They get the attention. They’re women who are worth something.” But she says, “I’m a woman who’s worth something, too.”
Georgina H: [foreign language 00:37:37]
Speaker 3: This is something that we heard from a lot of the janitors and farm workers and other low wage immigrant workers that we’ve talked to since the Me Too movement started, that this is not new. That they have been trying to speak up, but they just haven’t been heard, and that the whole universe of female workers out there need to be included in this conversation. The Time’s Up Now movement is trying to be more inclusive. They’ve started this legal defense fund for women workers, and this is all great, great work. But I think we still really need to think about the systemic barriers that keep night shift janitors and others from coming forward and from reporting this, and from seeking legal help. There’s so much more that needs to be done so that Me Too doesn’t even have to happen in the first place.
Speaker 2: Sasha Khokha and Bernice Yueng are continuing to follow the story. Bernice’s book, In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, comes out this spring. As we were getting ready to air our show, we received another statement from ABM. The company says that within hours of becoming aware of the new abuse allegations, they hired an outside investigator and offered the women the option of taking paid leave. ABM also says the accused wrongdoers are no longer employed by the company.The Me Too movement grew out of some groundbreaking reporting by the New York Times that exposed abuses against women by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Speaker 6: We thought this would be a big Hollywood story, a big entertainment story, but no one could really anticipate that it would have this sort of global call to action.
Speaker 2: How we got to the Me Too movement of today. That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Byard Duncan: Hey, folks. Byard Duncan here from Reveal’s engagement team. Our Rape on the Night Shift investigation is a big one, bigger than just one-
Section 4 of 5 [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
Section 5 of 5 [00:40:00 – 00:52:44]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: [inaudible 00:40:00] on the night shift investigation is a big one. Bigger than just one hour of radio. There’s a whole bunch of written stories from Bernice Yearn as well as follow up reporting from [inaudible 00:40:10] and an hour long television documentary from front line. The project has won award from the society of professional journalism, investigative reporters, and editors, and more. If you want to explore the issue more, a good place to start is revealnews.org/night shift. Again that’s revealnews.or/night shift.
Al: From the center for investigative reporting in PRX, this is reveal. I’m Al Ledson. We’ve been talking this hour about women who’ve been vulnerable to sexual assault. Janitors who clean office buildings after everyone else has gone home for the day. Just like women from all professions and all corners of society, it’s been difficult for them to tell their stories about these abuses and when they did, it’s been hard to get people to pay attention. But something changed when Ashley Judd told the New York Times her story about serial abuser Harvey Weinstein and the dam finally broke.
Ashley Judd: There was a simple [inaudible 00:41:15] call inside of me like this is the right thing to do, whatever may happen after this I can’t do anything about that, that will be out of my hands. And I sure am glad I did.
Al: The me too hashtag flooded social media. Soon other women started telling their stories. Rebecca Corbett’s been at the center of the Weinstein story from the beginning. She’s an investigative editor with the New York Times and she joins me now. Rebecca, thanks for coming on.
Rebecca Corbett: Thank you.
Al: So let’s take it back to the start. When did the times decide to go after this story with Harvey Weinstein in the first place?
Rebecca Corbett: It was last spring. We’d known of course of rumors about Weinstein over the years but last spring attitudes about harassment we thought might be changing and tolerance for harassers might be changing and that was demonstrated by the Bill O’Reilly case where Fox News ousted him because he became a liability after the Times revealed his history of paying millions of dollars to female accusers.
Speaker 5: Bill O’Reilly was forced out of his top rated Fox News show, The O’Reilly Factor, over allegations of sexual harassment.
Rebecca Corbett: We started asking ourselves were there other powerful figures that had hidden a history of secret settlements or other misconduct and his was one of the first names that came to mind.
Al: But Bill Cosby may actually have been the beginning of it all. The first crack in the wall so to speak.
Rebecca Corbett: I think that’s true. I think that was a shocking story for many in Hollywood in the entertainment industry beyond that. But we do think that there was with O’Reilly the revelations about settlements and a history of harassment sent the message that when you disclose this information that it can have a real impact and there were stories that we were doing about the tech industry where women in silicone valley were starting to speak out and some people in the venture capital world and elsewhere had to resign. So I think there was this building momentum.
Al: You weren’t the first to ask about Weinstein. Other journalists had been trying but it was really hard for them to get any women to go on record. How did the times reporters approach this in a different way than other journalists?
Rebecca Corbett: We of course were aware that other journalists has pursued Weinstein over the years but failed. An obstacle has always been getting women to speak out and they felt a great deal of risk. But we felt that there was a way of making it safer, recognizing that while these encounters were often just two people in a hotel room or elsewhere they weren’t just he said she said incidents. In many of the episodes we were able to find people who learned of the episodes very shortly after they happened, assistants who had seen women going into rooms and coming out very very disturbed or crying and there were ways of buttressing their cases by a lot of reporting and showing as well that they were part of a pattern. The notion that there were other people saying similar things was very reassuring but it of course took months of building trust and hearing their stories and then trying to corroborate them in some ways.
Al: How did you think Weinstein would strike back? I mean he’s kind of infamous as a big power broker in Hollywood known for having a really short temper. You had to expect that there was going to be some push back. What did you think it was gonna be?
Rebecca Corbett: He had a army of protectors. He had lawyers, he had publicists he had friends quote unquote acting on his behalf. He made legal threats, he preemptively threatened to sue us. And he allegedly hired former agents from the Israeli intelligence agency, the Moussad.
Speaker 6: Hiring private investigators including former Israeli spies.
Speaker 7: Harvey Weinstein as allegations against him began to go public hired essentially an army of private investigators.
Al: Did you expect him to come at you with former Moussad agents?
Rebecca Corbett: I don’t think anyone could anticipate something like that even by the standards of push back on stories, that was a pretty exceptional moment. And all of this was designed to both deflect us and to intimidate women who said they had been victimized by him. So he tried hard but none of that worked in the end.
Al: Rebecca when did you start seeing the Me Too hashtag pop up?
Rebecca Corbett: I think it was a week, maybe a week or 10 days after our first story ran. So we ran first story and then five days later we ran the story that focused on actresses and there were very prominent ones. Gwenyth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and we think it was just a few days after that as I recall. And it seemed to take off pretty quickly.
Speaker 8: The me too social media movement is growing.
Speaker 9: The me too hash tag has taken social media by storm.
Speaker 10: The me too social media campaign is now spilling into the streets.
Rebecca Corbett: We thought this would be a big Hollywood story, a big entertainment story, but no one could really anticipate that it would have this sort of global call to action that had happened.
Al: Do you feel like the pendulum is beginning to swing these stories are coming up about so many different people at so many different times, maybe the public can get a little wary about hearing these stories?
Rebecca Corbett: Well this question of, has this gone too far and is there a backlash and is there, what is the spectrum and what should be the proper scale of not of what’s acceptable of what the consequences should be. I think there’s still a lot of calling to account perpetrators and so I don’t think that’s over yet, but I think that we’re also moving into this phase where what people really want to know is this just a moment or is this really a time when things will change and that requires following up on all these pledges that companies have made about changing their policy about new protections that law makers have promised, new practices in industry after industry. There are systemic reasons why harassment has persisted so long and is so pervasive and there are things that would need to be addressed to change that and I think that a lot of reporting on that is what needs to happen and will happen in coming months.
Al: When the Bill Cosby accusations came up, I’m African American and hanging out with my African American friends both men and women, they were really hesitant to believe that Bill Cosby, somebody that they loved that they looked up to that they thought of as a family member was doing some really bad stuff behind the scenes, it just doesn’t set right. It takes a little while for people to wrap their heads around it. I think the same thing can be said when you look at Bill Clinton, when you look at Al Franken, and I think that carries on to the president of the United States Donald J. Trump where his supporters have a really hard time wrapping their heads around what’s been said that happens behind closed doors where they can’t see.
And so I guess the question I have is, how do you break through to that group of people? Whether it’s democrat, republican, black, white or whatever. How do we break the wall that toxic masculinity has created and makes us look past these things?
Rebecca Corbett: Well I think that’s a really great question and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. I think what’s been so surprising and not surprising about the revelations about so many people or the accusations at least is it’s not a political issue, it’s not an issue of the left or of the right, it’s not an issue of class, it’s not an issue of geography or ideology, it’s a pervasive problem that effects women around the globe. I mean there’s been responses and consequences in 81 countries.
Part of the me too movement and our reporting and the very good reporting done by other news organizations is that a lot of women have these experiences, a lot of them had been reluctant to speak out for very long time and women are subjected to this pretty routinely, and it’s not so shocking to women that this happens and I think it’s the first time that men have really come to understand and recognize that whether it will make them more likely to accept the fact that some beloved TV character that the real life version may not be so honorable, I don’t know. But I think the only solution that journalists can offer is very solid aggressive persuasive reporting.
Al: Rebecca thank you so much for joining us.
Rebecca Corbett: Sure, thank you very much.
Al: Rebecca Corbett is an investigative editor with the New York Times.
At first glance there seems to be distance between the people in Hollywood and the janitors we heard earlier in the show. But in reality, sexual misconduct and abuse knows no boundaries. And no matter how much we hear these stories, you can bet that there are many many more that people will never know of. So what’s next? As Rebecca just asked, is Me Too just a moment or a movement that will create lasting change?
Well that would be on us, not just the victims of abuse, not just women, but on men too. We’ve all got work to do.
Deb George and Cheryl Duval edited our show. Amy Walters and and Anna Yancy Diaz Cortez produced our updates. Thanks to editor Andy Donohue for his help with our [inaudible 00:51:54] on the night shift story. Our production manager is [inaudible 00:51:58] our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Amy Pyles our editor in chief Christa [inaudible 00:52:04] is our acting CEO. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan, our theme music is by [inaudible 00:52:09] lightning. Support for reveals provided by the Riva and David Logan foundation. The John D and Katherine T. McArthur foundation, the Jonathan Logan family foundation, the Ford foundation, the Hising Simons foundation, and the ethics and excellence in journalism foundation. Reveal is a co production for the center for investigative reporting and PRX. I’m Al [inaudible 00:52:29] and remember, there is always more to the story.