Oregon was among the first states to pass a law designed to prevent wage theft and sexual harassment in the janitorial industry, but the regulations that took effect this year are getting a second look from lawmakers.

“Our initial concern was we were capturing far too many people under this,” said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, co-sponsor of a corrective bill that’s quickly working its way through the Legislature. “They had included individual employees in the licensing requirement. Then, it was capturing housekeepers. A lot of my colleagues across the state were really nervous about that.”

Salinas, a former lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, supported the law, passed last year, that’s prompting janitorial firms across the state to become licensed as labor contractors, similar to what’s required of agriculture and forestry firms. The Bureau of Labor and Industries, charged with regulating janitorial firms, lists at least seven companies in Central Oregon that have been contacted and begun working toward licensing.

There are likely many more in Central Oregon that haven’t been contacted by the bureau, but they will want to pay attention to regulations under the current bill, House Bill 4058. The Senate Committee on Workforce voted in favor of it on Thursday, and it’s expected to be adopted. Enforcement could begin July 1.

Businesses that contract with janitorial services have liability under the law, too. “You definitely do not want to hire somebody who does not have that new license after July 1,” Salinas said.

The law that passed last year took effect Jan. 1, but the labor and industries bureau is holding off enforcement to focus on outreach and technical assistance to employers, partly because legislators indicated that the law would be amended this session, spokesman Charlie Burr said.

The notice that Barb Wehrle, co-owner of Everclear Cleaning Services Inc. in Bend, received in December said she needed to get licensed this year. She immediately started gathering documentation for herself, her husband and company managers because under the regulation, anyone who’s involved in soliciting, recruiting or paying janitorial labor has to be licensed. Two weeks ago, the Wehrles and four of their managers and supervisors took the license exam, which was given locally.

Unlike many janitorial contractors, Everclear is big enough that Wehrle doesn’t spend her time at job sites. “There’s a lot of paperwork,” she said. “I think again about smaller companies. What if they don’t have automated payroll?”

One of the rules — which would be eliminated in House Bill 4058 — requires anyone who directly employs janitorial labor to submit certified payroll records to the bureau.

Isidra Miranda, owner of Isidra’s Cleaning Services, said she couldn’t have complied with the regulations without help from a business adviser at Central Oregon Community College. She has five employees, but she also spends her days cleaning newly built homes. “I don’t have time to look at a book and study,” she said.

Wage theft was the main reason behind the push to regulate janitorial contractors, Salinas said, but the unions soon realized that their members were vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment. In 2016, The Oregonian reported, five janitors who worked in the Bank of America Financial Center in Portland sued the building owner, Terrace Tower U.S.A., after they were subjected to harassment by a supervisor. The suit was dismissed in September after a settlement was reached, Multnomah Circuit Court records show. “Rape on the Night Shift,” a joint investigation by Frontline and the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, brought the problem to light in 2015.

The idea behind the regulations is to create a paper trail, Salinas said. Janitorial workers “just get dropped off at a building at night,” she said. “The worker may go back to the employer, and the employer has shut down shop. With a janitor who works at night, a female janitor, somebody should know where they are physically located.”

Wehrle said she has heard over the years about subcontractors who pocket part of their employees’ wages, and her company even dealt with a couple of instances of sexual harassment. “Everybody deserves respect and equal treatment,” she said.

Although submitting payroll records to the state can be burdensome, Wehrle said she doesn’t see how regulators will catch those employers who aren’t paying what they claim if that requirement is dropped.

Under the proposal, employers would still have to report the addresses of their job sites, so workers would have some recourse if they aren’t paid, Salinas said.

Lawmakers are hoping the revised rules will put more emphasis on training to prevent sexual harassment and making sure workers know their rights. “It’s not to burden janitorial firms, but to get at the fact these janitorial contractors need to know what they’re responsible for,” she said.

Awareness of the law appears to be low. Miranda said none of her acquaintances who also do janitorial work had been contacted by the bureau. She works solely for homebuilders, one of which uses six cleaning companies, she said.

Last year, the Oregon Employment Department said there were 532 employers in the state providing janitorial services, but the labor and industries bureau sent out 1,200 notices, said Dylan Morgan, compliance manager in the Wage and Hour Division.

It’s easy to see how cleaning contractors might be confused about what to do. The regulations that took effect Jan. 1 apply to residential housekeepers, for example, but if House Bill 4058 is passed into law, the bureau will exempt housekeepers through its administrative rule-making process, Burr said.

If a residential cleaning contractor calls the bureau about the licensing requirement today, Burr said, “We will tell them what the rules are now. After the session, if there are changes, we will adopt those changes.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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