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Women Janitors Win More Protections From Rape on the Night Shift

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Maria Paramo says her supervisor harassed her repeatedly and eventually assaulted her on the job.  (Alex Hall/KQED)

The nation's largest janitorial company, ABM Industries, has settled a lawsuit with three women janitors from Fresno who claimed the company 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.

"I know we are not the only ones," said plaintiff Maria Paramo. "This problem affects many workers, especially women in our industry, all across the country. I am proud to stand up for myself and others who cannot speak to say 'ya basta' [enough is enough]."

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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.

This new settlement — developed with input from women janitors themselves — requires ABM janitorial operations across California to develop more robust safety protocols. That could include using a buddy system to pair up workers when dropping off supplies, and limiting supply drops to well-lit, outdoor areas. The settlement also requires the company to create goals of hiring and promoting more women to supervisory positions.

The case was first filed in 2019. Another plaintiff, Araceli Sanchez, said she endured 14 years of harassment while cleaning buildings, including sexual assault and attempted rape, from her supervisor, while working the night shift.

“He made me feel like a piece of trash, like I wasn’t worth anything,” Sanchez told The California Report in 2019. “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.”

Janitor Araceli Sanchez says she endured abuse at the hands of her supervisor for 14 years. (Alex Hall/KQED)

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 alleged 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.

"It is a very scary thing to be in their position: to work alone at night in a big empty building, to not speak English, to be paid minimum wage and have that be your sole source of income for your entire family, to be threatened with losing your job, threatened with immigration authorities, and threatened physically with harm," said Brenda Adams, senior attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, which filed the lawsuit in conjunction with Fresno law firm Lang, Richert and Patch.

More on 'Rape on the Night Shift'

"These women were vulnerable and supervisors knew that. And ABM threw them to the wolves," added Adams.

The agreement also requires that sexual harassment training and resources be made available in English and Spanish, and be accessible to those with limited literacy by providing audio files and pictorial descriptions to janitors and supervisors.

“It addresses a major problem in the janitorial industry, which is you can have the best policies on the planet, but if people don’t understand them, it’s meaningless," said Adams.

In a written statement to KQED, ABM Industries noted that the company is "committed to fostering a professional and safe working environment for all our employees and we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Upon learning of these alleged incidents, we took immediate action by suspending the accused individuals, retaining an independent third party to investigate the claims, following up with the employees on their wellbeing, and subsequently terminating the accused individuals immediately after our investigation concluded. We take any claim of sexual harassment very seriously and remain committed to providing a safe workplace for all.”

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