Homeless attacks on state workers in Sacramento prompt pepper spray request

The union representing California state groundskeepers wants to give workers pepper spray to defend themselves from homeless people after a series of attacks.

The International Union of Operating Engineers made the request in a grievance filed Wednesday morning with the Department of General Services, the groundskeepers’ employer.

Homeless people have attacked five workers represented by the union in the last couple months, said Brandy Johnson, a union representative.

Shortly before Sept. 11, a homeless person attacked two workers who were clearing the person’s belongings from the space around a war memorial in Capitol Park for an event, Johnson said. The homeless person punched and scratched one of the workers’ faces, she said.

In late August, a homeless man tapped the shoulder of a worker who was using a leaf blower outside the Secretary of State building. When the worker turned around, the homeless man — who had been known to harass workers in the area — punched him in the face, Johnson said.

California Highway Patrol arrested suspects in both incidents, she said. Johnson said she has been told about two additional attacks, but hasn’t been able to obtain details.

“Any violent attacks against visitors or staff that work around the Capitol are unacceptable, and taken very seriously,” Lynda Gledhill, a Government Operations Agency spokeswoman, said in an email. “Everyone has a right to a safe and secure working environment. The California Highway Patrol, which oversees security at state buildings, including the State Capitol, is enhancing patrol efforts to ensure the safety and security of staff and members of the public. There are also ongoing referrals to city and county services for resources available to homeless individuals. We will continue to track this issue closely.”

Johnson said the attacks represent an escalation of confrontations between groundskeepers and homeless people, which she said have become increasingly common as workers have been tasked with removing homeless people’s belongings from state property in Sacramento.

“We’ve been telling (the Department of General Services) for the last few months it’s going to escalate, and now here we are; our folks are being assaulted,” Johnson said.

The union filed a grievance earlier in the year objecting to the workers’ being assigned to clean up human waste and drug paraphernalia from homeless camps in downtown Sacramento without the training or equipment the union says those tasks require.

An arbitration is scheduled for Nov. 20 on that grievance, said Steve Crouch, the union’s director of public employees.

“We’re just trying to get this out as an issue that needs to be addressed quickly,” Crouch said. “Something needs to be done immediately before one of our members gets seriously hurt.”

The union’s Wednesday grievance calls for DGS to buy and distribute pepper spray for its groundskeepers and to train them in its use. Crouch said the union wants workers in San Francisco and Los Angeles to receive pepper spray too. The grievance also seeks incident reports related to the attacks and for any future attacks.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.