Leticia Soto—single mother, undocumented worker and rape survivor—stood in the auditorium at the Oakland State Building and addressed the crowd.
In one hand, Soto clasped a placard reading: “When you’re alone at night, no one can hear you.” In the other, she gripped the microphone.
“Just because I’m an immigrant or just because I’m a janitor does not mean I need to live in fear of being raped,” she said.
Soto, along with sexual assault support groups and a union representing workers in the janitorial industry, is part of a campaign backing new legislation in Sacramento that would expand protection for night-shift workers vulnerable to sexual assault.
The bill, AB 1978, recently passed the state legislature and rests with Governor Jerry Brown, who has not taken a public position on the measure. Supporters are demanding he sign the bill into law before a September 30 deadline.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) introduced the bill in February after a documentary film, Rape on the Night Shift, brought new attention to the risk of sexual assault faced by janitors working nights. The film was produced in a collaboration among journalism organizations including UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. It was shown at the same Oakland event where Soto spoke.
The Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West and allies have staged documentary screenings, protests and events across California in support of the bill. The campaign included a rally on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley last week.
As the documentary highlights, most cases of janitorial sexual harassment and assault occur at small companies that employ a high percentage of undocumented workers and rarely receive much attention.
AB 1978 would create a public registry of janitorial services by 2018, an approach modeled on that of farm labor contractors. Supporters believe the registry would help authorities monitor janitorial employers to reduce sexual harassment and other abuses, such as wage theft.
“In order to even know what is going on there, we have to know who they are,” said Jennifer Reisch, legal director at Equal Rights Advocates, a co-sponsor of the bill along with SEIU’s California State Council.
By 2020, AB 1978 also would require every employee to undertake sexual assault prevention training. Until then, employees would get a pamphlet on sexual harassment from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
California already mandates sexual assault prevention training for businesses with more than 50 employees. But Jennifer Reisch of Equal Rights Advocates said state law does not cover smaller operations, which employ a large share of janitorial workers.
Additionally, the new bill would create by 2019 an advisory committee made up of union organizers, employers, nonprofit organizations and janitorial workers. The committee would be expected to develop an awareness and training program.
Alejandra Valles, secretary-treasurer of the service workers union, acknowledged that the bill’s focus on registration and education is a small step. However, she said workers need to know their rights for abuse to stop.
Training “is going to make a world of change,” she said.
The bill won bipartisan support in Sacramento. A janitorial trade group, the Pacific Association of Building Service, also expressed its support, issuing a statement that additional workplace protections are necessary given the special risks facing women working at night in mostly empty buildings.
Some aspects of the bill were opposed by business interests, however, during the legislative process. The California Chamber of Commerce, for instance, said that compliance costs were too high and will “encourage unlawful actors to continue to participate in the underground economy.”
The chamber later dropped its opposition and no longer takes a position on AB 1978, spokesperson Christine Haddon wrote by email in response to questions.
Given the general support for the bill, Stephen Boardman of the SEIU said he assumed Brown will sign the measure into law by the deadline. Brown could also allow the bill to become law without his signature. A two-thirds vote would be required in each legislative chamber to override a veto.
Advocates plan to continue the public campaign until the bill is approved. Some survivors of sexual assault are fasting to further dramatize the issue, and plan to remain outside the Capitol Building until Brown signs the bill.
In the Oakland auditorium, Soto recounted what her supervisor told her when she left her janitorial job: “No one’s going to believe you. You’re undocumented. You’re an immigrant.”
Tears ran down her face while she spoke.
“I stand here before you because I know now that this is not right,” Soto said. “We need to break the silence; we need to do something about it.”
Corrections: On September 14th, the Investigative Reporting Project was changed to its correct name, the Investigative Reporting Program.