BERKELEY, Calif. — It was supposed to be just another routine job for Patti Cris, who in early 2018 was a contract worker for the home services booking site Handy. She got the key for the San Jose apartment she was scheduled to clean while its occupant was gone, and remembers knocking twice and announcing herself, just to make sure.
But when Ms. Cris opened the door, she said, she was greeted by a naked man who appeared to be waiting for her.
“I’m shocked that he’s naked,” Ms. Cris, 34, recalled. “I felt really violated.”
Cleaners like Ms. Cris often face sexual harassment on the job, but as independent contractors, they lack employers’ protection and are forced to navigate uncomfortable situations alone.
Three Handy cleaners told The New York Times that they had encountered unwanted touching, sexual comments and other harassment while working. They said the problem was worsened by handyman and housecleaning apps like Handy, which have created new avenues for potential harassers to bring victims into their homes but have largely stayed out of disputes between workers and customers.
Now, the Public Rights Project, a civil rights nonprofit, is asking California to treat Handy’s workers as employees, which would force the company to step up protection for workers who faced sexual harassment.
In a complaint filed Wednesday with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Public Rights Project says nearly a dozen cleaners who worked on Handy said they had faced on-the-job harassment but could not get Handy to address it. Instead, they said, Handy often charged them a fee for leaving a job early after being harassed.
“Handy continues to deprive workers of their basic legal protections as employees, including discrimination and harassment protections, and are exploiting workers by misclassifying them in order to lower their costs,” the complaint said.
Handy said in a statement that workers were charged a fee only if the customer complained about an unfinished job and the complaint could be verified and was not challenged by the worker. The company added that it actively responded to worker complaints about harassment.
The filing against Handy is the latest test of a new California labor law known as Assembly Bill 5, which took effect at the start of 2020 and ordered employers to treat many gig workers as employees and provide them with the associated benefits. Most gig companies in the state have refused to comply with the law.
In its complaint, the Public Rights Project argues that Handy’s cleaners are employees under A.B. 5 and entitled to workers’ compensation, paid sick leave, protection from discrimination and a commitment by the company to adequately address reports of sexual harassment.
“Handy really stood out as a place where the policies that the company had put in place were making workers unsafe,” said Jenny Montoya Tansey, the policy director of the Public Rights Project. “Forty-two percent of the workers we talked to said they had experienced sexual harassment on the platform.”
Handy, a New York-based company founded in 2012, is a subsidiary of ANGI Homeservices. It operates around the United States, as well as in Canada and Britain, and said more than 20,000 workers had completed more than 1.2 million jobs in California.
The company argued that its workers were exempt from A.B. 5’s employment protections because the law was recently amended to exempt workers who perform minor cleaning and repair services outside a company’s regular course of business.
“The safety and security of Handy pros is of paramount importance to us,” said Jenn Bishop, a Handy vice president, using Handy’s term for its cleaners and other workers. “We have strict protocols in place to ensure that, in the rare event there is a problem, we handle it swiftly, definitively and with the safety of the pro at the forefront.”
Ms. Bishop said the company monitors incidents around the clock, contacts workers who report problems and pays for transportation away from an unsafe situation.
“We also remove customers from the platform based entirely on the pro’s report of an incident,” she said.
Housekeepers who work in hotels and casinos often face harassment on the job, studies have shown, but it is not clear how often cleaners face harassment in private homes. Hotels usually employ their cleaning staff, and some municipalities require them to protect cleaners from harassment or even give them panic buttons to use while working. But workers who find cleaning gigs through Handy have fewer protections.
In Ms. Cris’s case, she said, she told the naked man that she was a Handy worker, but he said he had not requested an apartment cleaning. She quickly left and emailed Handy to report the incident that day, she said, then left a flurry of voice mail messages and follow-up emails when the company did not respond — and docked her pay for not completing the job.
Eventually, she said, a Handy representative said a record of the booking could not be found. That was the last straw for Ms. Cris, who said she had dealt with a litany of issues while working for Handy and decided to quit the platform after about eight months.
Other Handy workers who spoke to The Times, as well as workers whose stories were included in the Public Rights Project complaint, said Handy’s policy of billing workers who left a job early put pressure on them to stay in uncomfortable situations. They said customers also sometimes threatened them with negative ratings if they spoke up about misbehavior — a consequence that could cause the workers to be kicked off Handy’s platform.
Handy said it regularly removed customers’ ratings and reviews of workers upon a worker’s request.
Legislators and regulators in California have tried to force gig companies to be more accountable for their workers through A.B. 5. But ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, which use gig workers as drivers, have protested the employment law and threatened to suspend service in California if they were forced to undertake what they said would be a costly reclassification.
Handy has a far lower profile than the two transit giants, but an employment reclassification would be no less significant for its workers, the Public Rights Project argued.
Handy has “sort of been hiding behind Uber and Lyft — they’re less on the radar potentially for some enforcers,” Ms. Montoya Tansey said. “But they’re no less clear in their desire to flout the law.”
Ms. Bishop said Handy believes all gig economy workers should have protection under anti-discrimination and anti-harassment statutes, as well as access to comprehensive benefit packages, including sick leave, family leave and health care. Handy does not provide those benefits to its gig workers.
Any action by California’s housing and employment agency would apply only to Handy’s California workers. But Ms. Montoya Tansey said she hoped that if Handy was held accountable for the conditions those workers faced, the changes that the company might make in response — for instance, creating a system to investigate reports of sexual misconduct or banning customers who are accused of harassment or assault from the platform — would benefit workers nationwide.
Ms. Cris, a resident of Napa, Calif., said that since the instance of sexual harassment, she had carried pepper spray around with her. Thinking back to the apartment in San Jose is not easy, she said, but she hopes that telling her story will prompt Handy to change its policies.
“If you don’t feel safe, you shouldn’t have to pay for leaving that situation,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to feel forced to be there.”