A new report by SEIU Local 49 and Raise America PDX explains a new Oregon law that goes into effect on July 1, 2018, that will protect janitors from discrimination, wage theft, and sexual harassment and assault on the job. The report also details the potential harms that janitorial customers face by using irresponsible janitorial contractors, and how to prevent harm by selecting a responsible contractor.
The industry trend toward outsourcing in recent decades has fostered a race to the bottom. Many companies contract with janitorial service providers, rather than hire janitors directly. This can reduce costs for property owners and managers, but it also allows them to shield themselves from responsibility when employers pay poverty wages and violate janitors’ legal rights. In 2017, Oregon janitors and their allies sounded the alarm about serious problems plaguing the janitorial industry.
Before the #MeToo movement became a nationwide discussion, Oregon janitors broke the silence about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault on the job. Women in Oregon face the second highest frequency of reported rape and sexual assault in the U.S., and nearly six percent of reported rapes in the U.S. occur while the victim is working. A number of factors make janitors particularly vulnerable. Janitors often work alone, at night, in isolated locations. Many are immigrant women, who may face additional challenges and intimidation when reporting abuses.
Some janitorial companies engage in wage theft, paying piece rates (such as by the building floor) that do not add up to minimum wage, or not paying for travel time between worksites. Some “ghost employers” hire janitors over the internet and then disappear when payday comes. Other companies require employees to sign dubious franchise agreements that make janitors pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work. Other industry problems include high rates of on-the-job injuries, employer noncompliance with health and safety standards, and opaque subcontracting practices that shield law-breaking employers from being held accountable.
The state legislature took action, creating new tools to raise standards and increase protections for low-wage workers. The Property Service Worker Protection Act of 2017 (HB 3279) holds accountable both janitorial contractors and the customers who hire them. People who hire janitorial contractors in Oregon no longer have the luxury of saying “not my problem.”
Starting in 2018, janitorial companies must obtain a labor contractor license. Additionally, they must provide professional training to all employees to prevent sexual harassment and assault, prevent discrimination, and promote cultural competency and workers’ whistleblower rights.
Anyone who hires a janitorial contractor is now required to ensure that contractor is licensed. Failing to do so can mean serious repercussions for the customer, including fines and lawsuits. Additionally, customers can be held jointly and severally liable for unpaid wages and attorneys’ fees if they hire an unlicensed janitorial contractor that fails to pay its employees.
Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) now maintains a list of licensed Property Service Contractors. BOLI does not proactively assess whether these employers comply with wage laws, however. One way to minimize risk is to choose from a vetted list of Responsible Contractors, maintained by the janitors’ union, Service Employees International Union.