It was the isolation that made Erika Morales most wary of her job as a night shift janitor. The solitude had begun to feel like a trap.
Then one fall evening, after everyone else had gone home, she arrived to clean a Bank of America branch. In the binding silence of the empty building, she scrubbed toilets and vacuumed hallways. She’d catch her distorted reflection in the window, though she knew there was only darkness on the other side of the glass.
“There’s no one to ask for help when certain things happened and you screamed,” she said. “No one can hear. And there are certain places where there are no cameras. There’s no sound. There’s nobody.”
During her shift, the only person she’d often come into contact with was her supervisor. It was his job to drive around town to check on Morales and other janitors who worked for a subsidiary of ABM Industries Inc., the largest cleaning company in the country. The janitors he oversaw mostly worked solo, at low-slung offices and health clinics across Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley.
These were conditions that Morales said her supervisor, a broad-shouldered man with salt-and-pepper hair named José Vasquez, chose to abuse.
As she cleaned, she’d spot him in the window watching her from outside. He’d sneak up behind her to grab her breasts, she said, and stare at her while saying things like, “You are so delicious.” Morales regularly pleaded with him to stop, and he laughed at her.
She had appealed to another supervisor. He turned out to be Vasquez’s cousin. “He would always tell me, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Morales said.
Morales frequently thought about quitting. She constantly was running the numbers in her head, but without a steady paycheck, she didn’t see how she could manage. At the time, she was 29 with two kids.
“In that moment, my children’s father wasn’t there,” she said. “I didn’t have another income for myself and my two children. So I hoped it would change.”
That warm September night in 2005, Morales was vacuuming the first floor of the bank when Vasquez appeared like a ghost, she said. He asked her to help him put away paper towels in the supply closet.
Morales steeled herself as she entered. This time, nothing was going to happen, she told herself.
Once inside, she said Vasquez cornered her and unbuttoned her pants. She fought him, which seemed to make him angry. He started to take off her shirt and bra. Morales said the next part was a blur.
“He knew there weren’t any cameras,” she said. “I would yell and nobody would hear me, nobody could see me.”
He groped her and grabbed her by the hair. “Don’t do this to me,” she said.
Vasquez laughed and left suddenly before he got her shirt completely off. To this day, she’s not sure how she defended herself. But what had happened in the supply closet was the limit of what she could bear.
“That’s when I said: ‘No more. I can’t stand this,’ ” Morales said. A few days later, she turned in her keys and quit.
When Vasquez’s cousin wanted to know why she was leaving the job, Morales told him that Vasquez was “doing things that he shouldn’t be doing and you know it.”
In fact, it wasn’t just his cousin who had been warned about Vasquez’s behavior. Company officials had reason to believe they had a predator on their hands. They even had the rarest of things in a sexual abuse complaint – a willing and credible witness. Someone had come forward three months before to report that Vasquez had assaulted another female janitor at a nearby church.
They had a chance to stop the abuse that Morales said she endured. Instead, company officials let Vasquez go back to work, where it was his job to drive an ABM-issued truck to visit women as they cleaned buildings alone at night.
Sexual assault can happen anywhere: in the military and on college campuses, in the Catholic church and at world-renowned yoga studios.
But the way the problem has played out in the workplace largely has escaped public attention. About 50 people a day are sexually assaulted or raped while they’re on the clock, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Any statistic about sexual violence, though, is a farce – only a fraction of victims ever come forward to report the crime.
When they do, companies can hide complaints from the public by settling them secretly before a lawsuit is filed. The results of cases that do make it to court often are cloaked by confidentiality agreements.
“It is a black box,” said Laura Beth Nielsen, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied employment discrimination lawsuits. “No one can talk about it.”
The night shift janitor is an easy target for abuse. She clocks in after the last worker has flipped off the lights and locked the door. It’s tough work done for little pay in the anonymity of night, among mazes of empty cubicles and conference rooms. She’s even less likely to speak up if she’s afraid of being deported or fired.
Across the country, janitors at companies large and small say their employers have compounded the problem by turning a blind eye to complaints and attacking their credibility when they report abuse at the hands of their supervisors or co-workers.
In the janitorial world, ABM is the largest. It employs the most cleaners in the country and has a history of facing charges that it failed to prevent sexual violence. It’s among a rare group of 15 American corporations to have been targeted multiple times by the federal government for sexual harassment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued ABM three times since 2000 for mishandling complaints of sexual harassment or worse. Two of those cases involved allegations of rape, which is striking considering how rare it is for people to make these types of allegations publicly. In all three cases, the company settled and agreed to make improvements.
Anna Park, a government attorney who eventually would pick up Erika Morales’ complaint, said ABM’s response in that case was one of the worst she’d seen. Troubling violence wasn’t investigated. Victims or eyewitnesses were not interviewed.
“I think that’s what shocked us the most. As large as they were, the lack of action, lack of attention, lack of a sense of responsibility,” Park said.
We found 42 lawsuits from the past two decades in which ABM janitors said they had been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped at work. An unknown number of cases have been hidden from public view through confidential settlements. And despite government-imposed reform plans, similar accusations continue to crop up. In Los Angeles, two lawsuits filed in the past year say women who complained about explicit comments or sexual assault were ignored.
After more than a year of correspondence, ABM officials declined to be interviewed. The company instead provided a statement from its lawyer, Miranda Tolar. It said the way ABM handles the issue is the “gold standard” for the industry.
“In some cases, we’ve been made aware of inappropriate behavior and taken action. In other cases, allegations of wrongdoing have proven to be false and even malicious, often by individuals previously in consensual relationships that ended,” she said. “Sometimes, there are other motivations.”
ABM cleans high-rises, airports, universities and government buildings across the country. It has anti-harassment policies and training. It has a human resources department. About half of its nearly 65,000 janitors are unionized.
By contrast, most janitorial companies are tiny mom-and-pop operations that might not be worth taking to court. Or they’re off-the-books, fly-by-night operations that could disappear before a complaint can even be filed.
So ABM is one of the few janitorial companies with a paper trail. It is professional enough to respond to lawsuits. It turns large enough profits that aggrieved workers can file suit with the hope of a financial payoff at the end.
And among the larger, licensed businesses, ABM hardly is alone in being accused of botching sexual assault claims.
In Massachusetts, seven female janitors cleaning universities and office buildings for a company called UGL Unicco sued their employer after they said their supervisor touched and harassed them. The case settled in 2002 for a $1 million; the company did not admit wrongdoing. Janitors have sued the company five times in federal courts since then.
In Minnesota, a janitor filed a lawsuit in 2009 that claimed she was raped repeatedly by her boss while on the clock cleaning a shopping mall. When it got notice of her complaint, cleaning company Service Management Systems asked the accused manager to gather evidence for the case. The company settled the case and later said this was against its protocol. The janitor now works uneventfully for ABM.
Operations like these do the thankless work of keeping everyone’s office space clean and humming. The very fact that their workers are supposed to remain unseen in an industry that takes all comers means that when it comes to sexual violence on the job, almost everything that could go wrong does.
Before Erika Morales came forward, ABM already had been put on notice about José Vasquez.
Out of a bit of serendipity, Scott Stevenson had stayed late one night in June 2005 to clean the kitchen of the Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield. Most evenings, large sections of the megachurch are dark and vacant.
As he wiped down the counters, he asked a couple of his 12-year-old helpers to take a box of trash to a gated dumpster. A few minutes later, the kids came back still holding the garbage. Someone’s being hurt, one of the boys said.
Stevenson rushed out to where the dumpsters were enclosed by brick walls and a chain-link fence. The scene that was playing out stunned him into silence.
Under the glow of parking lot bulbs, Stevenson said he watched as an ABM supervisor he recognized as Vasquez pinned a worker against a brick wall behind the trash bins. Vasquez seized at the woman’s breasts and crotch as she tried to break free.
Helping others is a compulsion for Stevenson. He has fostered dozens of kids and runs a religious ministry for truck drivers passing through the loneliest stretches of Nevada. But in that moment, Stevenson didn’t know what to do. He hefted the box of trash into the dumpster with a deep bang.
Vasquez pivoted to face the church volunteer, looking nonchalant while his open belt buckle jingled. “Almost like it happens all the time,” Stevenson said.
He called the police. When the officers arrived, the female janitor was hesitant. Her situation was similar to that of Morales. She had kids to support, and she wanted to keep the job she had. Vasquez was her supervisor. She eventually told detectives that Vasquez had scared her by trapping her near the dumpster for about two minutes, where he had tried to touch her chest. (We’re not naming the woman because we couldn’t locate her to get her permission.)
A few days later, Vasquez was called to the police department to give his side of the story. He showed up with the woman Stevenson had seen him groping. She recanted, and the police closed the case.
But the church didn’t drop the issue. The day after the dumpster incident, Stevenson drafted a letter to church leaders explaining what he’d seen. Before the church canceled its contract with ABM, one of the pastors reported the incident to the company.
Figuring out what had happened fell to Tom Cazale, who was the head of ABM’s regional human resources. Cazale no longer works for ABM and declined to comment for this story. But he later told government attorneys that if the allegations against Vasquez were correct, he’d be “extremely embarrassed.”
It’s standard practice for a company to dispatch a trained investigator to get to the bottom of a severe sexual harassment claim. That investigator should conduct all of the interviews in person to weigh credibility, take good notes and talk to all potential witnesses.
In Cazale’s investigation into the church incident, these industry standards were all but ignored. In the rush to respond quickly, he asked an untrained administrative assistant to interview the victim. The assistant spoke to the janitor by phone.
Later, another ABM employee interviewed Vasquez. He said they’d been “playing around.”
Based on the interviews with Vasquez and the cleaner, Cazale said he was unable to confirm an assault. Cazale gave the supervisor a written warning because he’d admitted to touching the female janitor’s arm.
It’s easy to get lost in the nuances of sexual assault claims. Each one is a wild turn through what she said and then what he said, between what can be remembered and what can be proven.
But this wasn’t one of those cases.
Eyewitnesses to a sexual assault claim such as Stevenson are rare to the point of exceptional. But Cazale did not talk to him. To this day, Stevenson said, no one from ABM has contacted him.
In late August 2005, two months after ABM found out about Scott Stevenson’s report, the company got another clue that it had a problem on its hands. An anonymous letter written in Spanish arrived at the ABM office in San Francisco.
José Vasquez had harassed someone at the Valley Bible Fellowship, it said. Also, the letter continued, Javier Vasquez, another Bakersfield supervisor and José Vasquez’s relative, was abusing his authority by hiring relatives and forcing ABM janitors to work for his side business on company time.
“Please take this seriously,” the author wrote. “Some employees with a need to work are asking you to put a stop to these people without respect for the employees.”
A week passed and another note arrived, this time in English. “First of all, we hope you take this letter seriously,” it began. The last complaint had been forwarded to Javier Vasquez. The author wrote: “He just laughed and told me, ‘You see, nothing was done.'”
Written in careful script, the letter reiterated José Vasquez’s offenses at the Bakersfield church. It also described a new victim. At Clinica Sierra Vista, he “grabbed another ABM worker by the breast and ask ‘Are they Real?’ Her name is Erica. She got so nervous and just left.”
The letter reported that José Vasquez had served time for “sexual harassment.” The author closed the letter with a postscript: “This is not gossip, it is all true. Please help us.”
The company started another investigation, again putting Tom Cazale in charge. He asked a regional supervisor to look for Erica by checking the payroll records for that month. The supervisor spent about 15 minutes looking at a printout but couldn’t find anyone with that name.
Cazale sent a note on company letterhead in both English and Spanish to the return address on the anonymous letter. It said ABM was aware of the sexual harassment allegation at the church and had dealt with it according to company policies. Cazale closed the letter by saying that unless someone gave him more information, he couldn’t move forward with a detailed investigation.
Then Cazale failed to do the obvious. He did not have an investigator talk to anyone at the clinic to find out whether they knew anyone who’d worked there named Erica. Nor did he check to see if the letter’s return address matched that of any ABM employees.
Days and weeks passed. Cazale heard nothing more.
It would take another year for ABM to discover that José Vasquez was a convicted rapist.
About eight months after ABM received the anonymous letters at its San Francisco office, the company found the elusive “Erica,” though it didn’t locate her on its own.
A complaint had come into the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for policing on-the-job discrimination and harassment.
A cleaner named Erika Morales said her supervisor, José Vasquez, had harassed her.
Once it received Morales’ complaint, the commission sent a team to investigate. Its lawyers found 11 more janitors willing to publicly share their stories about being harassed or assaulted by Vasquez. This included Maria Magaña, who said she’d been raped by Vasquez while cleaning a Rabobank branch one night.
Tiny and tough, Magaña already had fought back a few times by hitting him with a duster or shoving him with a broom. The night she says she was raped, he summoned her to a conference room – where there were no security cameras – by telling her that the customer had complained about her work there. Once inside, he pushed her to the ground. Before she hit her head, she said she remembers thinking that there was nothing she could use to protect herself.
“I would have defended myself if I had been on guard,” she said recently. “That day, I was not on guard.”
Magaña lives with her son and elderly mother in Bakersfield, in a neighborhood at the intersection of farm fields and modest houses. She doesn’t mind working the night shift, but day or night, she is careful to avoid the bank where she said Vasquez raped her.
“Every time I pass by this bank, I remember what happened,” she said. “That’s why I try not to travel on this street. I take a turn.”
Until the commission came to her, Magaña had not reported the problem to the company or police.
“I was silent because of shame,” she said. “He would laugh and say that they weren’t going to believe me anyway.”
The government investigators found male co-workers who witnessed Vasquez’s behavior. One said he had personally seen Vasquez assault or harass female workers about a half-dozen times.
The commission also did what the company had not: It ran a basic background check on Vasquez and quickly discovered that he’d been convicted of rape in 1987 and sentenced to eight years in prison.
The commission notified ABM of Vasquez’s criminal record in December 2006, more than two years after he started working for the company. For the first time, someone at the company typed Vasquez’s name into California’s online sex offender registry. If company officials had pulled the criminal records, they would have learned that when Vasquez worked at a small Bakersfield movie theater, he raped his boss’s 18-year-old daughter at her home after a night of drinking.
On his job application, Vasquez hadn’t answered the question about whether he had ever been convicted of a crime. If he had, he would’ve had to include more than the rape. Not long before filling out the application, he’d been released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for possessing drugs he planned to sell.
Once ABM discovered the rape conviction, the company planned to put Vasquez on unpaid suspension until it completed its own investigation. Instead, he quit on the spot. His cousin, Javier, kept his position and wasn’t disciplined. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
José Vasquez now lives in a one-story house in Lamont, just outside Bakersfield. Cars share the driveway with a display of outdated appliances and spilled garbage.
When we knocked on his door one afternoon, he emerged shirtless and pulling on a pair of dark green trousers. At 60, his chest is still broad, if sunken. One arm bears a tattoo of a she-devil with the words “JV Hot Stuff” surrounding it.
We asked him about the claims that had been made against him when he worked at ABM. The women were “money hungry,” he said as his young kids ran in and out of the front hallway. “They were doing it all for the money. I didn’t even know some of the women.”
He’s never been charged with any crimes based on claims from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit. Morales never went to the police.
The ABM allegations were hard on him, he said. After he left the company, no one wanted to hire him. He ended up starting his own business called R&B Cleaning Co. with his girlfriend, a janitor he met at ABM. Together, they have four young kids with a fifth who was on the way.
Before José Vasquez fell on the job and started receiving disability payments, the couple had bought a truck and begun cleaning houses that had been foreclosed by banks. The company isn’t registered with the state.
Although Vasquez had decided to strike out on his own, his departure didn’t resolve ABM’s problems.
The federal government sued the company in 2007 for failing to prevent sexual harassment. Anna Park, the government attorney, saw systemic breakdowns at ABM, and it’s her job to hold employers – not perpetrators – accountable. The case she put together went well beyond Vasquez, growing to include 21 women who said they’d been sexually harassed by 14 men across California’s Central Valley.
The company responded to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in court filings by saying that few of the women’s claims met the legal definition of sexual harassment, which must be sustained and serious. ABM also said the women had received copies of the company’s sexual harassment policies, but not everyone had reported what was happening.
Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own janitorial staff. Then building owners and stores began outsourcing the work to cut costs. This created an explosion in contract cleaning companies.
In janitorial work, there’s a low barrier to entry – you need little beyond a mop and bucket to get a business off the ground – so many companies are tiny enterprises. About 93 percent of the 780,000 companies in the United States are registered as one-person outfits, according to the Census Bureau.
Much of the industry functions on a convoluted system of subcontracting. Some companies land cleaning gigs with big-box retailers or high-end high-rises but subcontract the actual cleaning to a different company. Some of the subcontractors might then subcontract the work to yet another business. This creates layers under which exploitation can thrive.
To stay competitive, cleaning companies of all sizes have to keep prices low. According to what’s reported to the federal government, janitors earn about $25,500 a year. The primary expense is labor, so wages are the first place where they cut corners.
“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat because the profit margin is so thin,” said Stephen Lerner, who led the first national effort to organize janitors for the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s.
Janitors have claimed that they were forced to clock in using two different names to avoid racking up overtime, Lerner said. They say unscrupulous contractors call them independent contractors so they don’t have to follow labor laws. Segments of the workforce aren’t authorized to work in the U.S., a scenario that makes workers vulnerable to abuses and puts companies at risk for legal problems.
Another part of the industry operates completely on the black market. The outfits go unregistered with the government to avoid paying taxes or insurance. These off-the-grid companies can charge far less than their competitors, said Lilia Garcia-Brower of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, which is partially funded by ABM to ferret out labor violations among nonunionized companies.
A recent study of 826 low-wage employees working illegally in San Diego County found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence, according to the study from Cornell University and San Diego State University professors.
In one of the most horrific displays of what can go awry, a band of brothers from Ukraine trafficked about 70 people from their home country to Philadelphia and forced them to work as cleaners after winning subcontracting gigs at companies such as Target and Wal-Mart from 2000 to 2007. Two women told prosecutors that they’d been raped by one of the traffickers.
At the other end of the spectrum is ABM, which has a long history of enviable success and expansion. American Building Maintenance Co., as it initially was called, was started in 1909 by Morris Rosenberg, who volunteered to clean the windows of San Francisco hardware stores and pharmacies. Pay me whatever you feel the job is worth, he’d tell owners. Soon, he was working for major department stores and theaters.
One of his first big contracts was for a bank run by his childhood friend, an Italian immigrant named Amadeo Giannini who started an outfit now known as Bank of America.
Today, ABM is a publicly traded company headquartered in New York with $5 billion in annual revenue. Its workers clean 2 billion square feet each day. It has expanded its offerings to security, parking and facility maintenance of all kinds. It handles sustainable energy projects for high-rises, operations support for military bases and maintenance that keeps golf courses pristine.
Despite growth into other areas, the bulk of ABM’s revenue still comes from its janitorial business, and cleaners make up 57 percent of its workforce. Its market share is five times larger than that of its janitorial competitors.
Like other larger and unionized outfits, ABM has human resources departments that distribute written policies on wages, breaks and workplace conduct. ABM’s policies say it does not tolerate sexual harassment. Those written policies instruct workers that it’s their responsibility to immediately report a problem to human resources. Workers also can call a 24-hour complaint hotline in 100 languages.
From there, the company promises to do a swift and effective investigation. A document handed to investigators, called a “blue letter,” gives them two missions: Address the worker’s concerns and help defend the company in possible legal actions.
And while written policies are critical for companies, they’re only a starting point, said Louise Fitzgerald, a renowned sexual harassment researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From there, a responsible company should publicize the policies to its workers and make it easy for them to complain. And if the company believes something has happened, it needs to take action.
“That’s one of the things we do know: If a company sends a strong message that it does not tolerate this behavior, there will be less sexual harassment,” she said.
Over the course of more than a year, we reached out to more than a dozen ABM board members, ex-employees and shareholders to ask them about the sexual assault claims brought by workers such as Erika Morales and Maria Magaña. Most did not want to talk – and some hung up on us – but others told us anonymously about the inherent challenges that come with addressing sexual harassment in the janitorial industry and how ABM has the best policies in the business. But they wouldn’t go on the record.
To truly get an insider’s view, we traveled some 2,000 miles from the company’s New York headquarters to eastern Washington state to talk to Mary Schultz, a lawyer who consulted for the company for three years.
ABM had hired Schultz after she successfully sued it for gender discrimination on behalf of a former ABM manager. As part of her consulting work for the company, Schultz traveled the country to talk to employees from all ranks.
What Schultz learned during her time with ABM was that the company was trying to address sexual harassment, but there were hot spots at different branches across the country where the issue had gotten away from them.
“When I got involved with the company, I certainly understood and believed that there was a definite intent to address these issues,” she said. “But it’s a huge undertaking and will continue to be.”
She said it’s a point of pride for the company that ABM offers an on-ramp to the American dream. At ABM job sites, people show up to work from China, Mexico and the Caribbean. They bring with them different customs, expectations and languages.
“You have a very diverse employee base, spread out across the country,” Schultz said. “You have a lot of really good people, and you have some really bad people. And the dilemma for the company is to try and identify and contain.”
When her three-year term ended in 2009, she left believing that both companies and workers have a responsibility to prevent harassment. Bosses needed to create policies, show vigilance and make it clear that there are consequences. And workers needed to report the problem.
This was the crux of a case Schultz helped ABM litigate in Minnesota, where eight women made claims in 2006 that they’d been harassed or assaulted by their superiors.
Miriam Pacheco was among them. Wearing a red sweater and velvet pants to ward off the winter chill, Pacheco told us not long ago that she’d been raped repeatedly by her co-worker in a conference room and a private office she cleaned. He had terrorized her by pulling all of the telephone wires so she couldn’t call for help, then blamed her for breaking the cords, she said.
Schultz took Pacheco’s deposition in 2007, at a moment when the ex-janitor was living in a homeless shelter with her two kids. Pacheco didn’t get much of an education before she came to the United States from Mexico, and she was in the country without immigration papers.
At the deposition, Schultz grilled Pacheco on the fact that she’d signed documents acknowledging receipt of ABM’s sexual harassment and workplace policies but didn’t use them to bring forward her complaint. Pacheco said she didn’t understand them, and she had taken the papers home and thrown them away.
At the time, Schultz was unrelenting, but now she acknowledges that workers like Pacheco are in a tough position.
“Everyone goes home to sleep. These folks are out there working,” she said. “What happens in that environment can be confusing, and if something happens, where do they turn? The question for the company becomes, ‘How can we get at those incidents? How do we protect?’ And there are limited ways of doing it. I mean, you can’t post a federal marshal at the door.”
After four years of litigation, the Minnesota case was thrown out in 2010. The judge said that in some cases, the women did not properly complain about the problem, and in others, the company had dealt appropriately with the issue. The judge also said some of the women’s complaints didn’t meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.
Looking back on that case, Schultz recognizes that workplace sexual harassment cases often hinge on what laypeople might consider a technicality.
“The law is the law,” Schultz said, and “some of that has little to do with what actually happened.”
“The company is not saying, nor has it ever, that these things don’t happen,” she added.
Schultz said civil lawsuits are a necessary but imperfect way to demand accountability, forcing companies into a position where they need to fight them.
“Do companies just start opening the wallet, paying out money to people whose circumstances they believe?” she said. “I think that would be horribly risky for any company. You would end up getting complaints from every angle. You would end up with varying motivations for complaints. You would be overwhelmed with trying to sort out the good from the bad.”
A year after Schultz left the company, ABM agreed to settle the case sparked by Erika Morales’ complaint. It paid $5.8 million but didn’t admit any wrongdoing.
ABM promised to improve sexual harassment training, ensure its policies are distributed in both English and Spanish and conduct on-site audits for sexual harassment. It also pledged to train its investigators, hire bilingual human resources staff and create a centralized database of worker complaints. Some of the provisions were national; others were specific to California’s Central Valley. Finally, it agreed to have the government’s expert witness oversee its progress through 2013.
ABM’s attorneys said the company has updated its policies and training since the government lawsuit.
“They did comply with the terms that we laid out, which we felt addressed some of it. Does that speak to the national practice?” said Anna Park, the government attorney. “I can’t say. We hope.”
Today, ABM continues to face sexual harassment cases in court. Since the beginning of 2010, the company has been sued seven times in federal court and at least nine times in California courts.
Most of the time, the company settles the cases without admitting guilt. Sometimes, the company prevails.
Its next test could come this fall. The company is slated to go to trial in a case in which three Southern California women allege that they were harassed, assaulted or raped by the same ABM floor waxer. The women have a familiar charge: They say their complaints to ABM management were ignored.
For months, they said, the abuse escalated. One woman said she was raped in fall 2009, and several months later, another woman said she was sexually assaulted by the same man. When she immediately reported it to a manager, she said she was told to go back to work. The manager told her that she should not contact security and that he’d call the police.
Eventually, the woman got tired of waiting for a response, she said, and went to the authorities on her own. The floor waxer ended up pleading guilty to sexual battery. He served one year in jail and got five years of probation.
ABM argues in court documents that it took immediate action once it received a complaint, firing the floor waxer, and that the women should be barred from bringing the lawsuit because they had settled workers’ compensation claims with the company based on these same allegations.
In the end, few win at trial against ABM. Maria Bojorquez is one of them.
She accused a supervisor of raping her while she cleaned a law office in San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building in 2004. After she complained, she said she was fired. ABM’s investigator had decided Bojorquez’s claims were inconclusive, but when the case went to trial in 2012, the jury found that ABM had failed to prevent harassment and had fired her for making the claims. Bojorquez was awarded more than $800,000 in damages. The company appealed.
In a recent hearing in that case, ABM’s lawyer argued that workplace violence cases involving other janitors shouldn’t have been brought up at trial. Standing before a panel of judges, he noted that the company has “tens of thousands of employees located across the United States and internationally, many who work in remote locations at night with minimal supervision.”
“Bad things sometimes happen,” he said.
For the past six years, Erika Morales has become known to the masses as DJ Bunny for Ligera FM, a shoebox of a station inside a bustling Bakersfield mercado.
After she quit her job at ABM, Morales managed a restaurant and nightclub. Her boss eventually tapped her to plug events on the local radio station. She discovered that even though she’s not the showy type, her voice becomes irresistibly golden once it meets a microphone.
Watching her transition from Erika to Bunny is like seeing an ember catch flame. At the station, she puts on headphones and effortlessly reads the horoscopes or promotes rock en Español concerts. Between news bits, she gives throaty shoutouts to the people who have written to her on Facebook from California, Argentina or Peru.
In the boundless Internet radio landscape, Morales is especially beloved because she has been willing to talk candidly about hard topics. Teary callers have sought her advice on how to file a police report for sexual assault or how to leave an abusive relationship.
Until a day in late February, she never had let on that she spoke on these topics with her own kind of tragic authority. But she found herself on the edge of a moment. She had one of her regular guests lined up, a California Highway Patrol officer, and she’d promised her listeners a program about workplace problems.
When the music stopped, she leaned into the mic and the words spilled out: “This is something delicate, and personally, I’ve never told this part of my life on air. Very few people know about this period, but I want this to serve as …”
Morales’ voice became uncharacteristically shaky. “And sorry if I may get a little emotional, but it’s still a question that I am trying to overcome,” she said.
Morales told her listeners that she’d been sexually harassed at work and that she knows it’s hard to come forward. She never did make it to the police herself. She just couldn’t summon the courage at the time. She told her listeners that in her case, she and others had tried to tell their bosses, but nothing was done.
“The problem is when they don’t believe you,” Morales said.
Nevertheless, she exhorted her listeners to report the problem. She reminded them that it wasn’t right and that it was never their fault.
“That’s not right,” she said. “You go to work and keep your head down, make your money and stay out of trouble.”
For nearly half an hour, Morales and the California Highway Patrol officer went back and forth on how to deal with sexual harassment. Then it was time for the rock music hour. She said farewell to the officer, put on a song with a bracing backbeat and turned off her mic before exhaling deeply.
Her phone was blazing with messages. “We are with you,” one said. Another read: “Continue fighting.” She was surprised by the response. She had expected to be judged.
Back on the mic, she thanked everyone for their support as she prepared to play Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Her upbeat cadence and rich delivery had begun to return. She let the song rage.
A decade has passed since Morales quit her job at ABM. She said she had set aside her fears to file a complaint because she was thinking of her daughter, her mother and the other women who were not yet ready to come forward.
When Morales had handed over her keys and tried one final time to tell a supervisor what was going on and he had dismissed her, she remembers spitting out her words. “There will be someone. Someone will speak out, and they are going to come and tell you that what you are doing is wrong,” she had said.
Morales still is amazed by the way her voice can carry. “I never imagined that I would be the one to speak out,” she said.
Daffodil Altan of Reveal, Sasha Khokha of KQED and Andrés Cediel and Lowell Bergman of IRP reported for this story. Nadine Sebai of IRP also contributed. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Robert Salladay and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.
Bernice Yeung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.