Three women janitors from Fresno have filed a lawsuit claiming that the nation’s largest janitorial company, ABM, fostered a sexually hostile work environment, emboldening supervisors to sexually harass and assault employees. The allegations against supervisors include making lewd sexual remarks, exposing genitals, displaying pornography, assault and attempted rape.
ABM provides janitorial services across the country. It was a focal point of KQED's groundbreaking 2015 investigation “Rape on the Night Shift,” produced in collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, PBS Frontline, Univision and UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. That investigation pointed to years of complaints against ABM, including a federal class-action lawsuit involving 21 women from the Central Valley.
In the new case filed this week, Fresno janitor Araceli Sanchez claims to have endured 14 years of harassment from her supervisor. She says he frequently grabbed her by the back of her head and tried to force her to her knees so that she would give him oral sex. The lawsuit details an incident in which he called her to his truck under guise of getting cleaning supplies, but would instead watch pornography and begin masturbating, as well as another incident where he drove her to an orchard and attempted to rape her.
“He made me feel like a piece of trash, like I wasn’t worth anything,” said Sanchez, standing outside Fresno County Superior Court, where the suit was filed. “Twice, he threatened me that if I told anyone, he would kill me. I felt like I didn’t have any rights. The company never told us we had any rights.”
Sanchez, who cannot read or write in English or Spanish, claims she was required to sign company documents without any explanation of what they meant. The complaint alleges there were documents in her personnel file that contained signatures of her name, but were not actually signed by her, including one detailing policies against harassment in the workplace.
The suit also alleges that the supervisor forced her to work off the clock, laundering her cleaning mop-heads and rags, and failed to reimburse her for the cost of using a laundromat.
Another plaintiff, Maria Paramo, claims that the same supervisor repeatedly grabbed her breasts and, at one point, digitally raped her by forcing his fingers into her vagina. Years later, the suit alleges he demanded oral sex in exchange for assigning her a full eight-hour shift.
“The company should be responsible. They can’t be blind or mute about what we say is happening to us,” Paramo said.
ABM has been sued by the federal government three times for failing to protect workers from sexual harassment. Each time it agreed to improvements. As recently as 2013, the company was subject to a consent decree stemming from the federal lawsuit in the Central Valley. That decree spelled out specific steps to protect janitors from harassment on the job in Fresno and surrounding areas.
ABM also agreed to follow other steps after a 2015 settlement in another case against ABM involving a female janitor who said she was raped by her supervisor at the San Francisco Ferry Building. As part of the terms of that case, ABM agreed to hire an outside neutral female investigator when it receives a complaint. The latest lawsuit alleges that when ABM did investigate the Fresno women’s case, it hired an investigator who had previously defended ABM against claims of sexual harassment in court.
“The company has broken its promises in numerous ways for many years,” said attorney Jennifer Reisch of Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, who’s representing the women in this new case.