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California's Janitors, Security Guards Face 'Inferior Working Conditions'

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A study released by UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education found that subcontracted janitorial and security service work is increasing while wages stay low.  (Slayer/Flickr)

Maria Trujillo cleaned buildings for 25 years.

But on Tuesday, she was leading a chant at a rally outside the state Capitol, calling for an end to abusive working conditions and sexual harassment for janitors like herself who have experienced sexual assault on the job.

"At the beginning, I felt really worthless," said Trujillo. "I felt like I was worth nothing. I felt like as an immigrant woman, I had to take this, and anyone could step all over me."

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez attended the same rally, where she announced that her office is working on a bill to increase protections for female janitors.

Gonzalez said she was moved to tears by "Rape on the Night Shift," a collaboration between Reveal, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, KQED, Frontline and Univision, and that it inspired her to improve conditions for women who are subject to abuse while cleaning buildings alone at night.


Tuesday's rallies -- which also marked International Women's Day -- came as a new study released by UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education linked subcontracting work to lower wages, fewer benefits, risk of sexual assault and other employment law violations, compared with non-subcontracted workers.

Researchers looked at janitorial and security service workers in California over a 30-year period to examine the impact of subcontract work on job quality outcomes for more than 200,000 service workers laboring under a subcontract.

Protesters rally in support of janitors, and to bring attention to issues of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace at the state Capitol on March 8, 2016.
Protesters rally in support of janitors, and to bring attention to issues of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace at the state Capitol on March 8, 2016. (Katie Orr/KQED)

They found that wages within the property services industry have declined or remained stagnant, even as employment in the janitorial and security industry has increased faster than other sectors of the economy.

Contracted janitors earned 20 percent less than noncontracted janitors, while contracted security officers earned 18 percent less.

"This is the first time we’ve been able to look specifically at this industry and confirm that the trend of low wages and poor work incomes is associated with subcontracting over time," said Sara Hinkley, a postdoctoral fellow at the Labor Center at UC Berkeley and an author the study. "We're talking about a significant number of workers that really represent the archetype of subcontracting."

The report also shows that contracted workers are significantly less likely to have health insurance. Thirty-five percent of contracted janitors had health insurance through their employer or union, while 62 percent of noncontracted janitors had health insurance.

High Risk of Sexual Harassment and Assault

In looking at sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, researchers repeatedly cited reporting from "Rape on the Night Shift." They found that the property services industry is structured in a way that leaves workers vulnerable to sexual assault and afraid to report it.

"Janitors and security officers tend to work alone at night in empty buildings and are isolated from almost everyone except their immediate supervisor," said Helen Chen, co-author of the study and coordinator of public programs at the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program. "This isolation is a major risk factor for sexual harassment, particularly when the harasser is their supervisor, which is a common occurrence in this industry."

Several other factors that researchers found increase the risk of sexual harassment include lack of accountability and lack of resources for prevention services on the part of smaller employers.

Researchers add that a workplace culture that does not support survivors, coupled with a high number of immigrant and undocumented female workers, leaves many in fear of retribution. Thus, many incidents go unreported.

"We talked to one janitor who was sexually propositioned by her supervisor and harassed for a year," said Chen. "That same supervisor harassed other women in the workplace and was never reprimanded. Employers generally do not have sexual harassment policies in place, and if they do, those policies are inadequate or are not enforced."

Disproportionately Affecting Immigrants, People of Color

While Latinos make up 37 percent of California's overall workforce, they make up 82 percent of contracted janitors and 41 percent of those who are not contracted.

The majority of contracted janitors are also immigrants, with 75 percent of them being foreign-born.

"You have a situation where contractors use the situation of immigrant status and gender as a means to create an environment of exploitation and harassment," said David Huerta, president of Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West, which represents 45,000 service workers throughout California.

Security officers are less likely to be immigrants because of the English-language requirements for the job. However, they are more likely to be African-American.

"These are things we've been talking about for some time now,," said Huerta. "And as we start talking about the issue of racial justice and immigrant justice in this country, more and more we're going to see that this dysfunction within subcontract industries exist."

High Competition, Lower wages

In talking with employers and industry experts, researchers found that the intense competition between contract companies, coupled with the labor-intensive nature of contract work, is what puts wages and working conditions on the chopping block.

Because labor cost accounts for the largest percentage of a contractor's cost of doing business, companies often find themselves unable to compete if their prices don't remain competitive.

"The most room that they have to cut costs is in the group of expenditures associated with hiring workers," said Hinkley. "They're continually competing with companies that are offering lower and lower costs based on being able to reduce the amount of money they spend on labor."

In conducting her research, Hinkley did find that there are employers out there who were genuine about wanting to offer their workers good jobs.

"These employers want to compete based on offering quality services, innovation and productivity enhancements. But instead, they have to compete in a market that's all about cutting labor costs," said Hinkley.

As for Huerta, who represents property service workers on the West Coast, his union's relatively strong footprint isn't cause for celebration. He notes that it's important to recognize the work to be done.

"This study indicates where progress has been made, but also shows where progress hasn't been made, and the reality that subcontractors had on the depressed wages on this industry and our economy," Huerta said.

Chen, who co-authored the report's section on sexual assault and harassment, said her office is developing a set of recommendations for the property service industry that will be released in April.

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