Brown signs bill to protect janitorial workers from sex harassment

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Ethan Epstein/File

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In light of the movement of janitors fighting against the sexual harassment they experience at their job, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law Thursday that establishes workplace protection against sexual violence and harassment for custodial staff.

AB 1978 — authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and sponsored by the Service Employees International Union — focuses on addressing sexual violence where the victims are largely undocumented female janitors who work in empty buildings at night and fear losing their jobs or getting deported if they report the harassment.

“(Janitors) really don’t have the same opportunities as perhaps other workforces,” said Gonzalez. “We know there are certain industries that are overwhelmingly immigrant women, which puts them at a more vulnerable position. These types of bills target this (problem) and level the playing field.”

SEIU United Service Workers West spokesperson Stephen Boardman stated that the janitorial industry is an “underground economy,” where issues such as sexual abuse, human trafficking and wage theft are common.

There were seven votes in opposition to the bill at the California Legislature. Gonzalez believes that possible reasons for dissent could be belief that the state shouldn’t interfere in these matters and that it is the victim’s personal responsibility to report.

Gonzalez was inspired to author the bill when an investigation made in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program among others, called “Rape on the Night Shift,” brought attention to the abuses janitors face during the night shift, often perpetrated by their supervisors.

“What our film has done is that we have been able to express and shine a light on this problem that has been well-known to the community for years and make others aware of it who didn’t know,” said Andrés Cediel, who works at the IRP and is one of the producers of the film.

By July 2018, AB 1978 will implement a janitorial contractor registry system, requiring employers to pay an initial $500 application fee and an annual $500 fee to register with the labor commissioner of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. This provision will prevent employers from working without registering and, according to Gonzalez, increase accountability, which was difficult in the past when there was no formal system to track them.

Additionally, the bill will require the California Department of Industrial Relations director to form an advisory committee to design a sexual harassment prevention training program by 2019, which will take place every other year. Gonzalez stated that the program would not only address sexual harassment policies but also inform employees of their right to report workplace violations and guide them to available resources.

“We’re trying to empower these women to speak out — and I think that’s important for victims,” said Gonzalez. “We want them to be able to feel empowered, to know the law and to exercise that right under the law.”

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected].