Working Alone, at Night, Janitors Risk Sexual Violence
'Rape on the Night Shift' explores how sexual violence against janitors is going unreported and unpunished. Most janitors working at offices, airports and schools start their workday just when many of us are ending ours. Some are women, working alone at night … and that can put them in danger.
Maria Magaña is a tiny woman in her 50s. She’s practically dwarfed by the giant vacuum cleaner she straps on her back. We went on the job with her one night as she cleaned offices in Bakersfield.
“I can't leave it dirty,” says Magaña, who’s so meticulous that she even uses a plastic fork to scrape dust out of the windowsills. “I dust most of the things, I even dust the signs. All these little windows, I clean ‘em.”
Magaña has been cleaning office buildings for nearly two decades. She used to work for ABM, the nation’s largest janitorial company, founded in San Francisco.
You’ve probably been in an airport or office cleaned by one of its nearly 65,000 janitors. But you may not know that ABM has been sued by janitors across the country for failing to protect them from sexual harassment, even rape.
He would grope her, grab her, taunt her.
“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,' ” recalls Magaña in Spanish. “I told him, ‘You get any closer and I’ll hit you with the handle.’ I would tell him, ‘I’m going to spray this cleaner in your eyes.’ ”
For years, Magaña tried to bury those memories. But now she drove us to the Bakersfield bank where she says that former supervisor assaulted her.
The bank was closed, but she peered in through the tinted glass door.
“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.”
In a state of shock, Magaña says, she cleaned herself up and finished working her shift. She says she felt too ashamed to tell anyone or go to the police.
Magaña was one of 21 California women who were part of a lawsuit, brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that ABM failed to protect them from sexual harassment and assault by 14 men working for the company. During a videotaped deposition with government lawyers, Magaña’s former supervisor, Jose Vasquez, denied assaulting her.
“Did you have sex with Maria Magaña against her will at the ABM work site?” asked the government attorney.
"No,” answered Vasquez.
“Did you rape Maria Magaña at the ABM worksite?”
The EEOC’s lead attorney, Anna Park, says it was one of the worst cases of sexual harassment she’d ever seen. “We did not believe they did all they could, and they allowed these women for years to be abused,” she says.
Park says the company didn’t follow its own procedures for investigating complaints of abuse. They never followed up with a man who says he saw Vasquez harassing a female janitor or thoroughly investigated anonymous letters warning that Vasquez had a criminal record.
“Any good company will say, ‘Let’s investigate this, who else is affected? What else is going on?’ That didn’t happen here," Park says.
In fact, Vasquez was a convicted rapist. But the officials who hired him didn't do a background check.
ABM settled the Central Valley case for $5.8 million in 2010. Without admitting any wrongdoing, the company agreed to improve its investigations and policies around sexual harassment.
ABM is not the only company where janitors say they have been abused. Our investigation found that sexual violence is a problem at janitorial companies across the nation.
But 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.
We tried for more than a year to get an interview with ABM. They declined and would only send us a videotaped statement from Miranda Tolar, the company’s deputy general counsel for employment law.
“We take these issues very seriously,” Tolar said. “We believe that our policies and procedures are the gold standard in the industry. Our systems work.”
Tolar also says employees go through sexual harassment prevention training and that the company provides a hotline for reporting concerns in 100 languages. ABM also sent us a letter saying our reporting is focusing on older cases, and that the company has improved their policies and practices since the EEOC case was settled.
Our investigation found that female janitors are still complaining about sexual harassment and abuse on the job at ABM. We found two recent lawsuits, for example, where female janitors in Los Angeles say they were fired after complaining.
Jose Vasquez never faced criminal charges for assaulting a janitor. He resigned from ABM and started his own cleaning company.
When we tracked him down at his house near Bakersfield, he didn’t want to be recorded. “Some of those women,” he told us, “were just money hungry.”
Maria Magaña still lives in a cramped house in Bakersfield, taking care of her elderly mother and teenage son. She says she’s had a hard time spending the settlement money.
“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,” says Magaña in Spanish, choking up. “That money won’t ease my pain, that filthy stain on my heart from that man who marked me. It won’t change the past, or clean how dirty I feel.”