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Janitor wins $812,000 in sexual harassment suit

 
Since 2007, janitorial firm has paid more than $6 million to plaintiffs in similar cases

For years, Maria Bojorquez’s children watched their mother lock herself in her room and heard her cry behind closed doors.

A once outgoing woman who used to take the family on spontaneous trips to the beach, Bojorquez would remain quiet for days on end.

Her children had no idea why she was so sad – until two years ago. That's when she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer, ABM Industries, the nation's largest janitorial services company, and its California subsidiary.

“When I went to the deposition, that’s when I found out what happened,” said Randolph Bojorquez, 26, her oldest son. “She didn’t share much with me. I think because of what happened (at) work, she felt ashamed and she didn’t want us to see her differently.” 

In October 2004, Maria Bojorquez was working as a night-shift janitor at San Francisco’s Ferry Building when, she says, her supervisor began sexually harassing her, eventually raping her when she was alone in a room.

After Bojorquez, a Spanish speaker, reported the incident, ABM asked her to sign a confidentiality form written in English. The firm began an investigation but later terminated her employment, while her alleged assailant remained employed, according to court records. In 2010, Bojorquez sued ABM for sexual harassment and retaliation.

Last week, a San Francisco County Superior Court jury awarded her $812,001.

In an e-mailed statement, an ABM representative said the company "deeply" disagreed with the verdict and is considering whether to file an appeal.

"For many years, ABM has had strong policies and practices against harassment," the statement reads. "As soon as we became aware of this matter, ABM conducted an immediate investigation, which found no tangible evidence that any sexual harassment occurred." 

Bojorquez's suit is one of at least a half-dozen sexual harassment lawsuits filed against the firm since 2007. ABM has paid more than $6 million to plaintiffs in those cases.

In 2010, a subsidiary of the company, ABM of Northern California, paid $5.8 million to settle a suit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of 21 women who claimed they were harassed and, on one occasion, sexually assaulted by supervisors at worksites throughout the Central Valley.

The firm denied any fault but agreed to make changes to its polices and procedures as part of the court-approved settlement agreement, or consent decree. That same year, Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco employee advocacy organization, filed suit on behalf of Bojorquez.

Since then, federal authorities say ABM in California had made some changes, including revising policies and manuals on sexual harassment and hiring new investigators familiar with employment discrimination laws. Federal monitor Michael Robbins is expected to continue auditing the company in California through the end of 2013. But plaintiffs' lawyers argue that is not enough.

"It's fundamentally a structural thing, like the plantation overseer. That person is abusing their power, and the plantation owner turns a blind eye to it," said Monali Sheth, a lawyer for Equal Rights Advocates, who represents Bojorquez. "These women are working alone late at night. They’re very vulnerable, they need to provide for their families, don’t speak English, so they're reluctant to come forward."

The EEOC wanted to extend the lawsuit to include ABM's parent company, but the firm successfully argued that it could not be held responsible for actions of employees at one of its subsidiaries. As a result, despite hundreds of complaints of sexual harassment from workers across the country, the terms of the consent decree apply only in California.

“This is a company, from our perspective, that has a really big problem,” said Elizabeth Esparza-Cervantes, an EEOC lawyer who filed the class-action suit. “Our goal initially was to sue ABM nationwide with the problems we discovered in the Central California lawsuit, but the magistrate judge limited our case to Central California.”

In court documents, Bojorquez said her supervisor frequently made suggestive comments and grabbed her breasts and arms. He allegedly called her at home on one occasion and said he wanted to come to her house. He exposed his penis to her while at work and threatened to fire her if she did not give him oral sex, according to the complaint.

Because Bojorquez worked alone, no one else witnessed the incidents, which she said occurred between August and October 2004.

According to the complaint, Bojorquez was working on the second floor of the Ferry Building on Oct. 4, 2004, in a room above the security office when her supervisor came in and told her to pick up some small pieces of paper from the floor. When she bent down to retrieve the paper, according to court documents, he grabbed her from behind, knocked her to the floor and raped her. Bojorquez said her supervisor stopped when he received a call on his radio from the security office and told her in Spanish, “See, that didn’t cost you anything,” before walking out of the room while still pulling up and adjusting his pants.

Bojorquez finished her shift. Two days later, at the urging of a co-worker, she reported the incident to another ABM supervisor. 

According to the complaint, the next day, that supervisor called Bojorquez into a meeting with the human resources manager and a Spanish-English interpreter. The manager told Bojorquez not to call the police or talk to anyone else about the incident and gave her a confidentiality form to sign. He also told her that she would be reassigned to another building, working under a woman’s supervision.

The next month, Bojorquez received a letter stating that ABM had completed its investigation, but was “unable to conclude that sexual harassment occurred.” The letter said, “We found no witnesses, nor any other type of evidence to support your complaint.”

In February 2005, ABM told Bojorquez the company no longer “had work for her.”

After Bojorquez filed a complaint, the EEOC notified her in May 2005 that she had the right to sue. The EEOC completed its investigation in April 2009 and uncovered evidence that Bojorquez's attorneys used to file suit against ABM.

For Bojorquez, who is currently unemployed, the settlement has provided some closure and relief.

She worked as a housekeeper at a hotel when she and her family first moved to Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1987. Later, they moved to San Francisco and then to Oakland, where Bojorquez worked for another janitorial company before joining ABM.

“You don’t need to stay silent,” Bojorquez said from her lawyer's office this week. “You should try to find help as soon as possible.”

For Bojorquez’s children, the case has provided an opportunity to talk – for the first time – about what happened to their mother eight years ago. Her youngest children still don't know.

“I’m not going to rush anything because I know what she’s going through,” her son Randolph said. “I’m just gonna let her come to me once she’s ready. I would tell her, I’m really proud of, you know, how she handled everything. I have a lot of respect for her, and admire everything she did.”

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