New Oregon Law Addresses Sexual Abuse Against Janitors

January 16, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Lawmakers in the Oregon state house voted in 2017 to introduce new protections for women in the janitorial industry. Those safeguards took effect this month. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

As the #MeToo movement continues to reinvigorate a national conversation around sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, Oregon has become the second state in the country to pass a law geared specifically at preventing abuse against women in the janitorial industry.

Women in Oregon face some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States. More than 27 percent of women in the state have been raped, and 55.7 percent have been the victim of sexual violence other than rape, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The issue is particularly acute in the janitorial industry, where many female janitors work alone at night in empty buildings, often when their supervisors are the only ones around. Under these circumstances, they can be especially prone to attack. When attacks occur, many do not report them for fear of retaliation, deportation or losing their jobs.

“They work in the shadows, they work at night, they’re not seen, so it’s easy to forget these big swaths of our workforce that are in vulnerable situations just by the mere fact of their industry,” said Democratic State Rep. Andrea Salinas of Oregon. “I think it’s more pervasive than we ever knew.”

Under Oregon’s new law, which took effect on Jan. 1, companies that hire janitorial contractors will be required to only use contractors registered through the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries. Those who use unlicensed contractors face fines and penalties, as do contractors who fail to secure a license with the state. Additionally, those in the industry will be required to complete sexual assault and harassment prevention training.

In all, more than 24,500 janitors are employed in Oregon for roughly 530 employers, according to the Department of Labor. Approximately one-third of all janitors in the U.S. are female, according to the Labor Department. About 60 percent of their supervisors are men.

“Since the #MeToo movement has come out, this is an example of how a state can actually take action,” said Felisa Hagins, political director for the Oregon chapter of the Service Employees International Union, who lobbied in support of the law. “[The measure] is about making sure that we know who’s out there working in this industry and hiring people, and also that workers, managers, and supervisors know their rights and responsibilities when it comes to preventing sexual assault and harassment.”

Salinas said a major push for the legislation came in the aftermath of the documentary, Rape on the Night Shift, an investigation into sexual abuse in the janitorial industry by FRONTLINE, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting program at UC Berkeley, KQED and Univision.

“I would like to see that workers understand their rights and that they feel brave enough to come forward if they are harassed in the workplace, and that they’re just kept safer,” she said. “What I’d like to see ultimately is that we just prevent this kind of aggressive, violent behavior in the workplace.”

The Oregon law mirrors a similar measure passed in California in 2016. California’s law requires sexual harassment training for all janitors by 2019, and starting in July, employers will need to begin registering with the state.

Despite the recent attention on harassment in Hollywood brought on by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, abuse is often most pervasive in the services sector, where many low-wage jobs are occupied by women. An analysis of more than 85,000 sexual harassment charges filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2015 found that around a quarter of all sexual harassment complaints came from the services industry, with around 80 percent of those claims filed by women, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress.

“Sexual harassment claims have been persistent over decades and they have cut across all industries. And many of the industries where they are most likely to arise are the industries that we are least likely to talk about,” said Jocelyn Frye, a fellow at the center who conducted the analysis. “I think that the state examples, particularly with the janitorial industry, are really instructive and important because too often we ignore the problems of folks who we’d like to render invisible.”

While California and Oregon are the only two states to enact laws mandating more protections for janitorial workers in particular, a handful of large cities have begun to add safeguards for low-income workers. For example, Seattle and Chicago have passed initiatives to increase protections against sexual harassment in the hotel industry, through features like a panic button for workers alone in rooms and a requirement that employees are provided a written notice of their rights.

While it’s too early to tell what effect the Oregon’s legislation will have, those involved in the process are hopeful it will help encourage a broader push to bolster protections within the industry.

“With janitors, given the conditions surrounding them and their silence around this, it will become something that I think other states will start to take notice of, because I don’t believe it’s just California and Oregon where it’s happening,” Salinas said. “States, once they start peeling the onion, will realize it’s a problem. And, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”

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