For Georgina Hernández, the harassment started pretty much her first day on the job cleaning the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel on the night shift. It was verbal at first, nonstop advances, unwanted flirting, but it escalated: On the upper deck of the parking garage, he raped her. He told her not to tell anyone, so she didn’t. He raped her again. “When you need the job,” she tells journalist Bernice Yeung in the opening chapter of In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, “you become the victim of others. That’s why you deal with everything, all of the harassment. You deal with discrimination, everything. You deal with it because you need the job.”
Hernández is hardly alone.
“I’ve just always been very struck by the concept of justice,” says Yeung, by phone from her office in Emeryville, California. “Maybe it’s because I grew up watching too much television involving courtroom narratives.” For the better half of a decade, she’s been working with Reveal, the publishing arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting, to investigate sexual assault of women immigrants working in largely invisible industries: farmworkers; night janitors, like Hernández; domestic caretakers.
“There’s this idea that somehow the legal system and the criminal justice system will deliver justice,” Yeung says. And then, her senior year in the journalism program at Northwestern, she took an investigative reporting class, digging into cases of wrongful conviction as part of the school’s Innocence Project. The mist—that the justice system begets justice—“was shattered.” Now, she wanted to understand how laws function, whether they function, who they function for, if they even function how lawmakers intended them to function. “It was a complete game-changer,” she recalls. “Just seeing how journalism can have a public interest application and impact was really powerful.”
So when, years later, she got the chance to join the reporting team at the CIR to investigate sexual assault among farmworkers, she jumped at it. “It was exactly the story I wanted to do,” she says. It was a story about what happens when there’s a gap between policy and reality and a story about what happens, on a human scale, to the people living in that gap.
That first story, “Rape in the Fields,” was a “monster collaboration” between the CIR and PBS’ Frontline, Univision, and later KQED. It was multiplatform, reported on television, on the radio, in print. It was huge—and the story was only getting bigger. A source for the farmworkers project mentioned workplace sexual assault was an issue for night-shift janitors, too, which led to another investigation and another multimedia series. The book builds on that work but pushes further, too. “I also saw an opportunity to really explore some of the questions that had come up for me around how we respond to sexual harassment,” she says.
“Reporting [sexual assault] is important,” but as the book illustrates all too well, “reporting doesn’t always result in outcomes that are better,” she says. “I would love to see people put a lot more energy and time and resources into prevention, so nobody” has to be the victim of harassment “and #MeToo doesn’t have to be a thing.”
And it’s starting to happen; increasingly, there are initiatives designed to stop the harassment from ever happening in the first place. “I think we have models for how the situation can be improved,” Yeung says. “I don’t feel hopeless about it.” And she doesn’t want you to feel hopeless about it either. “I want people to recognize the incredible resiliency of so many of the women that we’ve met along the way in our reporting,” she says—many of whom have gone on to become activists for change.
“Just being able to observe [Hernández] and her personal transformation was so uplifting and amazing to me that I always thought about her when I’d get a little bit stuck,” Yeung says. “And I wanted the public, hopefully, to see some of that too.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.