ERA & Women Janitors Win Sexual Harassment Lawsuit against ABM Industries

February 26. 2021


For Immediate Release
Feb 26, 2021

Media Contact
Jess Eagle, Communications Manager
Equal Rights Advocates
(717) 574-2702
[email protected]

Maria Paramo, former ABM janitor & ERA client
Janitorial worker client & changemaker, Maria Paramo

After many similar lawsuits, company will work with Equal Rights Advocates to prevent sexual harassment & curb discriminatory practices

Fresno, CA — A settlement was reached today in a multi-plaintiff sexual harassment lawsuit against Fortune 500 company ABM Industries, the nation’s largest facility management company. The large monetary settlement will be split between three ERA clients, Fresno-based ABM janitorial workers who experienced severe sexual harassment, including rape and sexual assault, retaliation, blacklisting, and other workplace violations.

The settlement will also require ABM to radically change its sexual harassment prevention procedures under the guidance of experts at Equal Rights Advocates. This is at least the tenth time in ten years that ABM has been sued in California over sexual harassment or sexual assault. 

The case originated when Araceli Sanchez, the first of the women to report the harassment, contacted the law firm Lang Richert & Patch, a Fresno-based firm that represents the three plaintiffs along with Equal Rights Advocates. Many thanks to our co-counsel at Lang Richert & Patch for their partnership, and to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for financially supporting this case.

Our clients bravely spoke out on behalf of all the women in the janitorial industry who can’t risk coming forward to report sexual violence. They united to fight for each other and their coworkers, and they showed us what’s possible when women workers join forces to demand change. — Brenda Adams, ERA Senior Attorney

ERA and LRP’s clients in the lawsuit are immigrant women janitorial workers assigned to the night shift who were sexually harassed and sexually assaulted repeatedly over many years by their supervisors. Shortly after filing EEOC complaints in 2017, they were laid off and illegally blacklisted by ABM, leaving them without a way to support their families for nearly three years. ABM supervisors also required our clients to launder ABM cleaning supplies on their own dime outside work hours, at home or in public laundromats — a biohazard in addition to a workplace violation, since some of the buildings they cleaned were medical facilities.

“Our clients bravely spoke out on behalf of all the women in the janitorial industry who can’t risk coming forward to report sexual violence,” said Brenda Adams, senior attorney at Equal Rights Advocates. “Our three clients worked in separate buildings and did not work together before this. They united to fight for each other and their coworkers, and they showed us what’s possible when women workers join forces to demand change.”

As part of the settlement agreement, ABM will implement new sexual harassment policies and practices provided by Equal Rights Advocates. The sexual harassment-related changes include establishing a buddy system for janitors who work alone; fairer investigations; more accessible resources for those who speak Spanish or cannot read; annual climate surveys; frequent industry-specific trainings, and more. (See a summary of all changes at the bottom of this release.)

As a result of our clients’ complaints, the EEOC separately began investigating ABM and found that ABM had subjected our clients and other female janitorial workers to violations of their civil rights. Negotiations in that case are ongoing. 

ABM has been in the spotlight multiple times in recent years for failing to protect its workers — especially night-shift immigrant woman janitors — from sexual assault and harassment. The company was the subject of 2015 PBS Frontline documentary “Rape on the Night Shift.”

I know that we are not the only ones. 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!’... You are not going to get away with this anymore. — ERA client Maria Paramo

“Many women janitors are in vulnerable positions because they work alone at night in big, empty buildings and come into contact with only their supervisors,” ERA’s Brenda Adams said. “Many are paid minimum age and are their family’s sole source of income, so reporting a supervisor puts them at major risk of losing their jobs out of retaliation. The supervisors knew that, and they took advantage of it.”

Despite being sued by Equal Rights Advocates over the very same issues in 2010, ABM has since failed to provide the trainings and protections it promised as part of that settlement. A San Francisco jury awarded $812,000 to the plaintiff, a night-shift janitor who was raped by her supervisor and then retaliated against by ABM for reporting it. The EEOC also sued ABM in 2007 on behalf of 21 women workers in Riverside.

The lawsuit also names Merchants Building Maintenance (MBM) in the blacklisting charges stemming from a transfer of janitorial employee contracts when ABM suddenly closed its Central Valley branch in 2018, just months after the three plaintiffs filed EEOC charges. Although MBM was legally required to retain all ABM Fresno janitorial employees for at least 60 days, evidence indicates the plaintiffs were blacklisted by ABM and illegally denied employment by MBM. MBM was dismissed pursuant to a settlement reached in January of this year. 

In response to these cases and others, a 2016 California law now requires janitorial companies to adopt sexual harassment prevention policies and provide training to workers and supervisors.

“I know that 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!’… You are not going to get away with this anymore.”

ABM Policy Changes

Under the settlement agreement, ABM agrees to make the following changes to their policies and procedures. The changes apply to ABM janitors/cleaners and their supervisors in California, and are required for at least 3 years, with the goal of longer lasting change.

New safety protocols will:

  • limit supply drops to daytime hours when possible, or if not possible, limit such supply drops to safe, well-lit outdoor areas; 
  • use a buddy system of at least two workers who drop off and receive supplies whenever possible; and
  • dissuade supervisors from requesting a direct report to come to the supervisor’s house for any company related activity.

Sexual harassment trainings must be:

  • available in both English and Spanish (complaint with CA law); 
  • interactive, provide examples specific to the janitorial industry, and include bystander intervention; 
  • included in supervisors’ annual trainings, including prevention training;
  • accessible to employees with low literacy by using pictorial graphics and audio of written materials; and
  • integrated within 90 days of a new janitor or supervisor hire, or otherwise as required by law.

Sexual harassment resources and informational materials must:

  • be available in both English and Spanish;
  • be accessible to those with limited literacy by providing audio files of the policies being read aloud (English and Spanish) and pictorial depictions on highly visible on company posters hung in common areas;
  • advertise clearly the employee hotline for reporting concerns, in new hire paperwork, posters in common areas, and reference cards given to all employees; and
  • include a new video (dubbed in Spanish) for new janitors and supervisors explaining what behaviors count as sexual harassment and the company’s prohibition on them.

Sexual harassment investigations must:

  • for reports of rape, violent sexual assault, or attempted rape, promptly engage an outside neutral investigator who will be female if the complainant is female or identifies as a woman;
  • be conducted by an investigator who can prove training in trauma-informed practices within the past year;
  • not be conducted by someone who has legally represented any supervisor at the company in the past 3 years;
  • be promptly initiated if a witness reveals in a separate investigation reveals they have experienced sexual harassment; and 
  • for those whose first language isn’t English, provide an investigator or qualified interpreter who speaks the employee’s preferred language.

Additionally, ABM will:

  • conduct anonymous climate surveys once per year for three years by a climate survey expert with experience in the maintenance industry, to assess the prevalence of sexual harassment and efficacy of ABM’s prevention measures; and
  • create goals around hiring and promoting more women to managerial and supervisory positions, and take affirmative action to make ABM more attractive to supervisors who are women.

 

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