By Rick Mullen,
Maintenance Sales News Magazine Associate Editor
In 2015, the PBS television show, “FRONTLINE” featured a groundbreaking investigative report titled “Rape on the Nightshift,” which documented the widespread sexual abuse of janitorial workers.
The program was a catalyst for a movement launched by women janitorial workers to stand up against sexual harassment in the workplace.
According to news reports, in early 2016, the United Service Workers West-Service Employees International Union- (USWW-SEIU) was shocked to learn that a vast majority of its members had either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment while on the job.
After union leadership watched the “Rape on the Nightshift” documentary, doing something about sexual harassment in the workplace became one of its priorities.
Laurie Sewell and John Nothdurft
During the ISSA Show North America 2019, ISSA Director of Government Affairs John Nothdurft and Laurie Sewell, CEO/president of Servicon Systems, Inc., of Culver City, CA, teamed up for a presentation titled “You Are Not Alone: Isolated Workers and Sexual Harassment.”
Servicon Systems is a building service contractor and distributor, employing about 1,500 union and non-union workers in 12 states, Sewell, a 30-year veteran of the cleaning industry, said.
In setting the stage for the presentation, Nothdurft pointed out that since the “Rape on the Nightshift” documentary aired, the country has seen the rise of the Me Too movement, which has inspired sexual harassment legislation in some states.
The phrase “Me Too” (or #MeToo) was initially used on social media in 2006, on Myspace, by sexual harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke.
“In 2018, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray commissioned a study for the U.S. Senate on harassment in the workplace,” Nothdurft said. “Custodial and janitorial workers were very high on the list, in terms of most susceptible, primarily because of the isolated nature their workplaces.
“Some baseline statistics: 20 states don’t require any harassment training for workers. Nine states encourage harassment training, but don’t require it, and, another 21 states require harassment training in some form.
“During the past two to three years, three states have specifically carved out harassment training for custodial and janitorial workers.
“California was the first state to pass legislation to specifically deal with harassment issues in the cleaning industry and the harassment of other isolated workers. Oregon followed suit by passing a similar bill, very much modeled after the California law. Furthermore, this past year, Washington state also passed legislation to do much of the same. All of these bills are in some form of implementation. Some are still going through the process of figuring out what the final legislation will entail, such as what will the requirements be, who can conduct training, etc.”
Sewell, who is heavily involved in the California effort to craft sexual harassment legislation, said, “California has always had a requirement for all city employers of 50 or more people to train all their supervisors every two years. In 2016, AB 1978 was passed and eventually became known as the Property Service Workers Protection Act, which specifically focused on the custodial industry.”
The Property Service Workers Protection Act required all janitorial employers to register with the Labor Commissioner’s Office beginning July 1, 2018, and to provide employees sexual harassment prevention training once every two years, beginning January 1, 2019.
In October 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed 15 bills aimed at increasing protections for California’s workforce, including landmark legislation drafted in response to the #MeToo movement focused on sexual harassment prevention and accountability, and creating a safe workplace for all Californians, especially women, who experience sexual harassment at disproportionate rates, according to www.gov.ca.gov.
Part of AB 1978 required all custodial providers to register with the state. It was a big win and was very much sponsored and backed by the USWW-SEIU union,” Sewell said.
AB 1978, the Property Service Workers Protection Act, also requires every employee in a business must receive sexual harassment training, in person, for two hours, every two years. This is an expansion of the previous requirement that only supervisors be trained, Sewell explained.
BEING ‘IN THE ROOM’
In fashioning the legislation, Sewell and other contractor representatives, were asked to meet with the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) to brainstorm on what the training would entail and who would be conducting the training.
“As you can imagine, some companies have a widely dispersed workforce that may not be able to come to their respective corporate offices for training. So, the question was, how can training be conducted for every person in the workforce?” Sewell said. “I am on a team that is figuring out what the curriculum will entail.
“The curriculum that was originally developed was for supervisors. Now, the new curriculum will be about empowering all employees by helping them understand what constitutes harassment, and to provide a safe environment for workers, as well as a way for them to talk about or report sexual harassment.
“They also thought it was really important that the training be conducted face-to-face, rather than just sitting people in front of a screen, which probably wouldn’t be very effective.”
The team also added a component for peer-to-peer training. One of the things that prevents people from reporting sexual harassment is the fear that reporting it to a supervisor or a higher level employee might cost them their jobs, Sewell said.
“They are exploring a peer-to-peer model, where trainers and trainees are peers,” Sewell said. “In California, we are now going to have to use sanctioned trainers. I can’t train a trainer on my team, unless I get sanctioned and approved by the state. There will be organizations producing and presenting this type of training, and I know the union is going to be heavily involved in certifying trainers.”
Gov. Newsom has signed legislation extending the deadline of some aspects of sexual harassment training to January 1, 2021. Employers who provide training to non-supervisory employees in 2020, will not have to do so again until 2022 (except for new hires).
Nothdurft pointed out that sexual harassment legislation will likely be taken up by more states. Indeed, in 2019, Illinois, his home state, passed the Illinois Transparency Act (SB75), which requires all employers to provide annual training on sexual harassment prevention, effective January 1, 2020.
Based on her experience, Nothdurft asked Sewell how she would advise other states on how to approach sexual harassment issues.
“I think a safe work environment starts with the proper culture of an organization, and understanding what issues are important to women,” Sewell said. “It really has to start with the clients an organization chooses to work with and on-boarding the right people.
“If you are a retail client, residential client or a residential provider, you need to understand what kind of environment you might be putting your employees into. Talk to them about zero tolerance. If they feel uncomfortable, provide them an opportunity or a way to communicate their concerns.
“It starts with training and on-boarding your people to understand what sexual harassment is and how to report it. We’ve actually toyed with, and probably will be introducing, a hotline within our organization.”
Sewell said it is important for people in the cleaning industry to be a part of crafting legislation to make sure it is not something that is going to adversely impact businesses.
“I wanted to be ‘in the room’ to make sure training rules and regulations would not be so difficult or so costly that we wouldn’t be able to implement them,” she said. “The DIR listened to the challenges that we felt would be presented by some of the laws being proposed. If you can get involved early in the legal process, you can shape it so it doesn’t prevent you from running a profitable organization. We always say we like to do well by doing right. So, I think this is one of those opportunities where you can do well by doing right, but you have to be in the room. You can’t just let the legislation move forward without being involved.”
Nothdurft agreed it is critical to be “in the room” while legislation is being crafted.
CLEANING INDUSTRY MUST TAKE THE LEAD
“One of the roles I fill at ISSA is building on our advocacy efforts,” Nothdurft said. “We track legislation. That is the way we heard about the Washington state law that passed this last session. We were able to engage our members in those states to talk to their elected officials to help iron out some of the details. Stay involved and informed. ISSA has a weekly advocacy recap on its website.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for laws or regulations to be put in place to act on sexual harassment issues. In that regard, as an industry, we need to be leaders.
“You don’t want regulators and lawmakers coming in your door saying you are just not doing enough. If we can lead, as an industry, to show the best practices, it will go a long way to making the response to harassment more on our terms. We want solutions we can work with to help prevent or minimize workplace harassment. It is not that we want to put these requirements on employers, we want to try to get out ahead of it. We want to lead so we can prevent or minimize harassment.
“It is great that you (Sewell) were involved early-on to help guide the conversation. Union employees are worried about their jobs. The business person is worried about business and his/her employees. Lawmakers just have to issue legislation.
“You really need that 360-degree view of these issues. I always say in crafting legislation, the devil is in the details. It could be the best idea in the world, but it could also be something employers can’t do or can’t afford to do. New laws may cause some unintended harm.”
Sewell said, “In terms of the sexual harassment issue, it starts with identifying the right people you want to bring into your organization, and helping them understand how you provide a safe work environment.
“We want people to go home the same way they came to work. We want to provide an environment safe from harassment — any kind of harassment. We want to have the conversation showing how we provide a safe work environment, not just from the perspective of trips, falls and slips, but also from the perspective of what makes people feel safe.”
Servicon Systems Chief People Officer Rich Conti added, “If you have the right culture, people enjoy coming to work every day. Take time and focus on how you want people to feel at work. You can train on sexual harassment until the cows come home, but when you say, ‘If your wife or daughter was harassed while working, how would you feel?’ — that hits people really hard. Having these conversations is important.”
Sewell said there are resources available to aid in sexual harassment training.
“Some companies are producing video vignettes,” she said. “There are a number of organizations offering empathy training. So, there are some videos out there that you can use.
“Our ‘why’ at Servicon is to have a positive impact, not only on our customers’ lives, but more specifically the people who work for us. It starts with the ‘whole human concept’ — welcoming the whole human into the workplace, while providing a safe environment where they are free from harassment. Let them know that is their right. That is something they should have, and we want them to have.
“We have a lot of people in the field. We have many supervisors. I’m not saying that somewhere along the line there couldn’t be a bad player, but we work really hard to not let them in. When we find out about a bad player, we get them out. We make that promise to the people who come to work for us. We want our people to communicate to us if they are aware of any kind of circumstance or somebody out there who is a bad player. We want to be a great employer. People can’t make a difference if they are scared about who they are reporting to, or even if they feel uncomfortable with a client.”
Sewell said when empowering employees, it is important to make them understand that sexual harassment can also involve more than the people in their respective companies.
“Sometimes it is the contractor who is in the building where an employee is working. Sometimes it is a security guard. Sometimes it is someone in the client’s workforce,” Sewell said. “Employees need to understand we are there to protect them from all of that, and not just from what they might consider the traditional case of supervisor harassment.”
Nothdurft also spoke of legislation passed in the state of Washington that calls for employees to be supplied with “panic buttons.”
In the state of Washington, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (HEHS) endorsed legislation that calls for supplying a panic button for employees, according to news reports.
SB 5258, signed into law in May 2019, amends the Washington Law Against Discrimination to require hotel, motel, retail, security guard entities, and property services contractor employers to supply panic buttons to their employees who spend a majority of their working hours alongside two or fewer coworkers.
The definition of “panic button” under SB 5258, is a device, carried by an employee to allow him/her to summon immediate assistance from another worker, a security guard, or a representative of the employer.
Going back to Sewell’s participation in crafting the California legislation, Nothdurft asked her, “Did it seem like all the sides were pretty open to listening to one another? How did that dialogue go?”
“The DIR brought to the table a lot of different agencies and organizations. There were universities that had done studies. It wasn’t just labor, government and employers in the room, there were also think tanks, universities and other associations,” Sewell said. “We all agreed what the end should look like. We wanted a safe work environment for everyone.”
Sewell reiterated that it is crucial to be in the room to make sure legislation passed would not inadvertently harm the businesses it was trying to protect.
“A lot of times legislators will pass something, while not understanding the negative impact it will have on businesses,” she said.
Websites: www.issa.com and www.serviconsystems.com.