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Women recount sexual harassment at Upper Valley cleaning companies

  • Cassandra Tibbits cleans a client’s home in Plainfield. Tibbits is one of seven women who went on the record in interviews about the sexual harassment they said they experienced while working for Upper Valley cleaning companies. Some of the women started their own cleaning companies to avoid working for men. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Nikkea Kimball’s Facebook post in September about allegations of sexual harassment by a cleaning company owner prompted a number of other women to share their own accounts. “I was just kind of horrified,” Kimball said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Nikkea Kimball, property manager at the Treetops condominium complex, posted on social media in September about sexual harassment she said she was subjected to by the owner of an Upper Valley cleaning company. Several women responded to Kimball’s post with their own accounts of being sexually harassed while working as cleaners. Kimball says she was cautioned against posting publicly about her allegations, but she felt like it was the right thing to do. “How many girls has he said that to and they didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to respond?” she said. “I could’ve been that girl at 20, easily.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cassandra Tibbits cleans a home for one of her clients in Plainfield, N.H., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Tibbits says that internet platforms such as the Upper Valley (VT/NH) Facebook group have made it easier to talk publicly about sexual harassment. “What was acceptable then isn’t acceptable now,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2021 6:12:13 AM
Modified: 11/10/2021 11:09:49 AM

LEBANON — This past summer, Nikkea Kimball, property manager of the new Treetops condominium complex on Etna Road, had a big cleaning job to put out to bid: A New York investor had purchased 32 units and wanted them ready for new tenants.

Kimball, a Lebanon native who lives in the complex with her young daughter, scheduled an inspection appointment with Rob Kebalka, owner of Upper Valley Cleaning, a Hanover-based cleaning company which services commercial properties and residential homes.

To give him an idea of what he could expect at Treetops, Kimball showed Kebalka her own unit to give him a sense of the layout and features.

While she showed Kebalka around, Kimball said, he peppered her with personal questions that had nothing to do with cleaning.

“Do you live here alone?” Kimball said Kebalka asked her. “Alone with your child?”

“Very odd questions,” Kimball remembers thinking at the time, but she dismissed them, explaining she “works primarily with men and didn’t think too much of it.”

Kebalka got the contract and finished the job, and Kimball did not expect to hear from him again.

Then in September, Kebalka called her to inform that one of his cleaners had been hired by an apartment owner at Treetops and in the course of cleaning the apartment had broken a shelf in the shower.

Kimball said she had a contractor showing up in a few days and would “have him take care of it.” She told Kebalka that the next time she needed a cleaner at Treetops, “you owe me one.”

A few days later, on a Friday night, Kebalka called Kimball again.

“I want to check with that whole I-owe-you-thing,” Kimball recalled Kebalka saying.

Kimball replied she didn’t know what he meant.

“I Googled you on the internet and found pictures of you in a bikini,” was Kebalka’s reply, according to Kimball.

Taken aback at the online snooping, Kimball deflected Kebalka’s comment and explained what she had meant: “If we need cleaning, just take care of it, that’s what I meant by ‘owe you one.’ ”

Two hours later Kebalka called Kimball again.

“You came up in a conversation between me and one of my employees,” Kebalka said this time, explaining his employee had known Kimball during high school.

By this point, Kimball said, she had grown uneasy with Kebalka’s unsolicited calls and found the reference to high school bizarre because she had not seen or spoken to the former classmate in 25 years.

“He told me you had quite the nickname back in the day,” Kebalka said, using a crude term for a sex act.

Kimball said she was too shocked to respond before Kebalka asked, “Would you like to have some fun with me?”

“Literally, those were exact words,” Kimball said in recalling the phone call recently.

That’s when Kimball went to her bosses at Investors Corp. of Vermont, the Burlington-based commercial property company that manages Treetops and the neighboring building, in which Mascoma Corp. and law firm Downs Rachlin Martin are tenants, to inform them of her interactions with Kebalka, who also had a cleaning contract for the Mascoma building.

Investors Corp., ICV for short, wasted no time in responding.

“ICV, the developers of Treetops condominium and the owner of the office building housing Mascoma Corp., terminated its contracts at both of its buildings with UV Cleaning as a business decision based upon information it acquired about the cleaning company,” said Barry Schuster, a Lebanon attorney who represents ICV.

Other women come forward

Kimball’s encounter with Kebalka, which she detailed online, would trigger a cascade of allegations about inappropriate workplace sexual behavior by Kebalka as well as his former business partner, Dennis Goodrich, now owner of Goodrich Cleaning.

On Sept. 11, under her Facebook username “Nikkea Stark,” Kimball cross-posted her account on both her own Facebook page and the Upper Valley (VT/NH) Facebook group, which has 19,000 members.

She wrote that she wanted “to share my experience with a professional cleaning company out of Hanover” as a “heads up to other females/families who may hire them to come into their home or place of business.”

Kimball then related the interactions with Kebalka, explaining what Kebalka said to her on the phone was “much more graphic” than what she was writing in the post but she wanted to “make other people aware when hiring this company ... I was almost in tears with how vulgar he was to me.”

After Kimball posted about her experience on Facebook, comments began pouring in from former employees sharing their experiences with Kebalka and Goodrich.

■“I used to work at the place you were talking about,” wrote Bryana Fisk, whose profile lists Sharon as her residence. “This happened to me. I was in a financial situation at one point and the owner offered to help me out. I was so grateful that I asked if I could pay the money back in installments. He didn’t want money. He wanted sexual favors.”

■“Rob has been doing this for YEARS to female employees. His former partner Dennis isn’t any better either. Those 2 are the worst employers in the cleaning industry. I’ve worked for them both years ago,” wrote Cassandra Tibbits, of Canaan.

■“Same thing when I worked for (Upper Valley Cleaning) when it was both owners,” wrote Sarah Willette, of Enfield.

■“I know one girl begged me to get her out of that situation. I hired her on the spot! She was devastated but had a child to support. She is an amazing cleaner. I was happy to get her out of that crap!” wrote Hannah Swift, owner of Swift Cleaning in Bradford, Vt.

For this story, the Valley News spoke with 11 former employees of Upper Valley Cleaning or Goodrich Cleaning — some employees worked different times at both — between 2011 and as recently as this past July. (Goodrich worked with Kebalka a decade ago but left and formed his own cleaning company in 2012). Seven of those women agreed to have their accounts included in this story.

The Valley News reached out to both Kebalka and Goodrich with details of the allegations made by their former employees in this story to give the men the opportunity to address them.

Kebalka, in an email to the Valley News, did not directly address specific accounts, but said, “I categorically deny the statements made publicly on Facebook, which both sadden and shock me. I am a happily married man and I love my wife. I also value and care about my employees like my own family and I would never degrade any female in the ways described in those posts.”

Goodrich said via email: “I have no comment about this and do not want anything written about my opinion about this story.”

Low-wage earners, high risk

To people who work at Upper Valley cleaning companies, the reputations of Kebalka and Goodrich are widely known and shared. But the companies and the employees themselves are often unseen by the public, either because they clean offices and businesses at night, when few people are in the building, or residences during the day, when the residents are at work and school.

Upper Valley Cleaning, for example, is currently contracted by Dartmouth College “for janitorial cleanup after athletic events, after-hours cleaning of infirmary spaces, and to clean units between tenants in the apartments we rent,” said Dartmouth College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence via email.

The pay for cleaners is low and typically there are no benefits such as paid vacation, let alone health insurance or a retirement plan. But for many women who lack job skills and are at the bottom of the economic ladder, some who have had substance abuse issues or perhaps run-ins with the law, cleaning work is readily available and provides flexible schedules, especially for workers with children.

Women in low-wage service sector jobs face a disproportionate risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, said Kristin Smith, a visiting associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College who researches gender inequality, labor markets and employment issues.

Smith’s research at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire in 2019 found that 52% of all women in the state report having experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime — higher than the national average — including 33% who have been the target of offensive remarks and 24% who were either touched or subjected to men exposing themselves.

Smith noted that a study by the public policy group Center for American Progress, based upon 10 years of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, found that “about a quarter of sexual harassment complaints come from the service sector” which is dominated by low-wage jobs.

“Sexual harassment is a form of power and control, and the low-wage sector has a more distinct power disadvantage between those who are in power and those who are the workers.” Smith said.

Moreover, she said, the workforce encompasses “vulnerable populations and socially marginalized groups” who stand at a “greater risk of sexual harassment and abuse,” such as people at the poverty line, young women just out of school and people with disabilities.”

Debra Altschiller, community liaison with Haven, New Hampshire’s largest domestic and sexual violence crisis center, said that firms with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from federal statutes that would apply to sexual harassment but that in New Hampshire simple assault, a misdemeanor, encompasses “unprivileged physical contact” with another person.

“Unwanted touching, hitting or slapping someone on their behind is simple assault. Someone doesn’t have to be bleeding from the head,” she said.

Nonetheless, Altschiller noted, 3 out of 4 women who have been subjected to sexual harassment never report it.

The reasons vary, Altschiller said, but include belief that no one will act upon their complaint, concerns of repercussions from employers and co-workers, or fears that they will be seen as having encouraged the offense — the last of which is often associated with a prior trauma in the woman’s life.

And these reasons are only exacerbated among women at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, for whom the obstacles to challenging the transgressor appear daunting.

“Like many people who are struggling, they do a cost-benefit analysis,” Altschiller said.

Victims often conclude the effort to stop sexual harassment is greater than the resources at their disposal.

‘They did what they wanted’

Sarah Willette, who grew up in Charlestown, said she went to work at Upper Valley Cleaning in 2011 or 2012 — she doesn’t remember which year — after a friend alerted her about a job there.

Then the young mother of a 5-year-old child, Willette, now 33, said she “needed a job because I was unemployed at the time.”

She recalled Kebalka expressed an odd interest in the location of tattoos under her clothes early on, Willette said, but there were no other warnings of what she said she later experienced.

About a month into the job, Willette said, Kebalka and Goodrich began trying to engage her in sexual banter and encounters.

Kebalka would ask Willette if she watched pornography, she said, and while they were cleaning houses together he asked if she would be willing to have oral sex with him, telling her “no one would ever know.”

Meanwhile, when she was on jobs with Goodrich, she recalled, he “would just come up and smack my butt and grab it.”

Finally, Willette said, she snapped at Goodrich, telling him to “knock it off,” explaining that she had a boyfriend.

“They acted the same. They did what they wanted,” said Willette, who left Upper Valley Cleaning after nine months and today works as a pharmacy tech at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“I ignored all this at the time, but looking back I should have reported it,” Willette said.

‘We’re going to have a threesome’

Jamie Donoghue related a more unsettling experience when she went to work at Upper Valley Cleaning around the same time as Willette.

Donoghue was living in White River Junction at the time, unemployed with a 2-year-old daughter, when she saw an ad in the newspaper for a cleaner.

“I got the interview. I remember them talking about my voice and how it would be good to work in the office so I could answer phone calls,” Donoghue, now 31, said. “At the time, I thought that was great because I would much rather work at the office.”

“Everything was fine for the first few weeks, a month passed,” Donoghue said. “Then they started making sexual kind of remarks.”

Donoghue said Kebalka and Goodrich would say, “no wonder you had a kid so young” and made comments about her body and what she wore to work.

“I wore professional clothing,” Donoghue said.

To avoid the unwanted comments, Donoghue said, she would duck out of the office to take a lunch break or tell Kebalka and Goodrich that she needed to check up on her daughter in day care.

“I thought that might kind of give them the hint,” Donoghue said.

But a few weeks later around lunchtime, Donoghue said, Kebalka and Goodrich came into her office — which was next to theirs — and shut the door behind them.

“Rob just stood right in front of the door and Dennis came over to me and put his hands on me. He had one hand going up and down the side of my body and then put his hand down his pants,” Donoghue said.

“He was telling Rob to come over. He told him twice to come over. I said, ‘No, I’m leaving,’ ” Donoghue recalled.

She recalled Goodrich calling her phone after she had left. “I told him that was not OK and it made me extremely uncomfortable and I wasn’t planning on going back. So then he apologized and said that it wouldn’t happen again,” Donoghue recounted.

“So stupid me,” Donoghue said. “I went back and continued working.”

A couple days later Kebalka and Goodrich again came into her office and said “they had an important cleaning job they had to do to themselves but that Dennis needed someone to watch his sons and didn’t have a babysitter.”

They asked if Donoghue would go to Goodrich’s apartment to look after his kids.

But when they got to Goodrich’s apartment, Donoghue said, no kids were there.

“Dennis was on his phone and said, ‘turns out my kids are going to stay with my mom,’ ” Donoghue said.

She said Kebalka and Goodrich then “started coming to me,” and Goodrich said, “This is a good opportunity to do what we want. I asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said ‘We’re going to have a threesome.’ ”

“I had to get out,” Donoghue said, who was closer to the door than Kebalka and Goodrich.

But she remembers finding it locked with a chain, which she unhooked, before darting out of the apartment.

“I walked back to the office building and I got my stuff and I never went back,” Donoghue said, who noted that she didn’t even want to inquire about her last paycheck.

She had worked at Upper Valley Cleaning for only three months.

Goodrich “showed up at my apartment building. By then I was living in South Royalton. I didn’t answer the door. I would ignore his call. I changed my phone number,” Donoghue said.

The experience left a searing memory, Donoghue said, that changed her life.

“To this day I will never get a job working for men,” Donoghue said.

‘We have to hook up’

Ashley Farris, of Plymouth, N.H., said she worked at Upper Valley Cleaning for three different stints from 2011 to 2019 and said during each time she was subjected to sexual harassment by Kebalka.

“He would show up at customers’ houses trying to get me to sleep with him,” said Farris, 32, who now has her own cleaning business.

Although she said Kebalka made unwanted advances during each period she worked for him, “I went back because I needed a job when my son was a baby. He’d hire me quickly.”

She said Kebalka would send her text messages during the day suggesting trysts in the office closet.

Sometimes he would try to tie more hours of work for sex, Farris said.

“The last time I went to work for him he said in his office, ‘I have plenty of work for you but we have to hook up,’ ” Farris described.

Other times he’d offer money for sexual favors.

Farris remembers Kebalka once saying to her, “ ‘I’d give you $100 for a ---- --- .’ Another time he proposed that she “give him ---- for a raise,” she said, in both cases using slang for oral sex.

“Very bluntly,” Farris said. “He would just say that.”

But Farris said ironically Kebalka’s behavior in one way has empowered former female employees who no longer could withstand working at Upper Valley Cleaning.

“Most of us have started our own cleaning businesses,” she said.

‘Do you want to make some more money?’

Cassandra Levatino, of New London, has been cleaning off and on most of her adult life and said Goodrich tried to engage her in a sexual encounter on the first day of work around 2016 when they were cleaning dorm rooms at Dartmouth College.

“He was very flirty,” said Levatino, 36. “He would tell me he was a bodybuilder, lift up his shirt and show his body off.”

But Goodrich made it clear that he was interested in more than showing off his abs, Levatino said.

Because it was her first day, Levatino said, she “laughed it off and ignored him,” explaining, “I needed a job and the money.”

Nonetheless, Levatino said the propositioning went on “multiple times.”

Dartmouth College spokeswoman Lawrence said via mail that Dartmouth currently has “no active contracts with Goodrich Cleaning. They were used to clean spaces at Tuck and Thayer from February 2016 through February 2020. They have told us they do not currently have the staffing to meet our needs.”

She said Dartmouth has never received a complaint about sexual harassment in regard to behavior by any member of a cleaning service the college employs.

Levatino said one of the most disturbing incidents she experienced was when she went to Goodrich’s house to clean it, which was part of her duties. Goodrich had provided a key to his apartment so she could let herself in, Levatino said.

“I walked in. I didn’t know he was going to be there. He just got out of the shower and he yelled at me from the bathroom, ‘Hello,’ and came out in his underwear and started talking to me about the cleaning in his underwear,” Levatino said.

“It was really awkward to me,” she said. “He was making comments about his body and he was talking to me as I was trying to clean and ignore him.”

At other times, when they would be cleaning together at clients’ houses, Levatino said, Goodrich, “would come up and grab my hip, lift up his shirt — ‘Oh, you like what you see?’ ”

Levatino said Goodrich would insinuate that there also were ways she could earn more money, if she was willing.

“ ‘Do you want to make some more money?’ ” Levatino said Goodrich would ask her, which Levatino said was, “Dennis hinting if I would have sex with him he’d pay me more money. It was a hint but it definitely seemed like an offer.”

Goodrich eventually stopped his pestering, Levatino said, but it was only after she told him repeatedly to stop it.

But there was a price to pay for holding firm.

“After I wouldn’t go along with it, I ended up quitting because he accused me of stealing something from his house.” Levatino said.

Levatino believes the accusation was in retaliation for not giving into Goodrich’s pressure for sex.

“I think if I had gone along with the flirting he wouldn’t have” accused her , Levatino said.

‘I just really need to see nude photos of you’

Micayla Wheeler, of Fairlee, was working as a server at Salt hill Pub in West Lebanon in summer 2020 but needed a second job after her tip income fell off dramatically because of the pandemic. She sent in an online application to Upper Valley Cleaning and got a response and interview with Kebalka right away.

From the first day she went to work for Upper Cleaning in August 2020, Wheeler, 22, said co-workers began informing her that Kebalka “is a creep and he’s going to ask if he can pay you money to sleep with him. ... They told me other women accepted money to do things with him.”

Wheeler said she started out as a housekeeper but was quickly moved into a clerical position in Upper Valley Cleaning’s offices, where she helped to process payroll.

By October, she was working at a front desk position, and that’s when Wheeler said Kebalka began making inappropriate comments to her.

Within a few weeks of working in the office “things really started to get creepy,” Wheeler said.

“I had on a pair of jeans that had one hole and (he’d say) ‘You look hot today,’ ” Wheeler recalled.

“One day he gave me $100 to get my hair done,” she said.

Kebalka’s sexual innuendo culminated when he asked Wheeler for nude pictures of herself, Wheeler said.

One day “he asked me to come in (to his office) and shut the door,” Wheeler recounted.

“He paused. Took a moment (and said), ‘I’ve just been thinking about it and I can’t stop thinking about it,’ Wheeler recalled Kebalka saying.

Thinking her boss was referring to a business initiative they had earlier been discussing, Wheeler said she replied, “yeah, it’s scary, but I think really worth it.”

Kebalka responded by telling Wheeler, “I just really need to see some nude photos of you. I can’t stop thinking about you,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler, shocked, recoiled.

“I was like, ‘No!’ I said no three times in a row. ‘What the f---? No, no, no.,’ ” Wheeler recalled.

Wheeler said Kebalka backed off, saying ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,’ ” and made attempts to apologize.

But Wheeler wasn’t having any of it.

“I’m like, ‘I’m going to check the mail.’ Then I left the office,” she said.

Wheeler continued to work at Upper Valley Cleaning another couple of weeks to finish doing the payroll before the Thanksgiving holiday. She left the office one afternoon shortly thereafter, saying she was going to run errands, and never went back.

‘You look like a girl who wears thongs’

Nicole Blodgett, 31, of Enfield, worked for Goodrich Cleaning from June 2019 to July 2021. She said Goodrich continually subjected her to unwanted sexual comments and advances, despite being rebuffed repeatedly.

Goodrich began probing Blodgett’s personal life the first day on the job when she was cleaning residential rooms at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in Hanover.

When Blodgett said she had a female partner, Goodrich “asked me a series of questions that were inappropriate.”

Goodrich continued to pester Blodgett for personal details.

“He asked me periodically what kind of underwear I wear,” Blodgett said, “saying ‘You look like a girl who wears thongs.’ I said I was very uncomfortable with that. He’d say ‘Oh, c’mon, Nikki, just answer the question’ ... he’d ask some pretty horrible questions.”

Blodgett said the repeated fending off of Goodrich’s sex-laden talk left her exhausted.

“He would apply a lot of pressure, until every time I would shut him down it would just progress his anger, and because of his anger and he knew I needed a job, he’d cut my hours or he’d find a way to punish me in the hopes that I would some day give in to him,” Blodgett said.

“It took a lot of strength to hold on tight and to not let him take my powers, but the verbal abuse didn’t stop,” said Blodgett, who left Goodrich Cleaning earlier this year and now works with another area cleaning company.

‘A lot of us were single moms’

Cassandra Tibbits, 39, who grew up in Canaan and still lives there, said she worked for Goodrich Cleaning from 2015 to 2018.

Like other female employees recounted, Goodrich would frequently flex his muscles in front of her, “take his shirt off (and show) you pictures of himself he took at the gym,” Tibbits said.

But when Goodrich would be working at a client’s house with Tibbits, he did more than show off his body or photos of himself, Tibbits said.

“He would sometimes rub up on you, He would joke with you in a sexual manner but do it in a joking way. ... He tried to get me to sleep with him,” she said. “Or he would go up behind you and touch your butt when you weren’t paying attention.”

Goodrich would at times get very aggressive in his sexual overtures, according to Tibbits.

A couple months after she began working for him, Tibbits said at a client’s house Goodrich would “touch me, he would try to grope my boobs.”

He didn’t stop there, however.

“And then on my vagina,” Tibbits said.

Another time, Goodrich “tried to pin me against the wall and kiss me. I pushed him away,” she said.

“I’d swat him away,” and Tibbits said that would make Goodrich back off. But the only way she could be assured of avoiding his sexual harassment was to make sure, “I worked with someone else and was no longer in his focus.”

Tibbits summed up the sentiments of many of her co-workers in the cleaning industry who worked for both Upper Valley Cleaning and Goodrich Cleaning and why they put up with abuse from the owners.

“I’m a single mom. I didn’t get any child support. I had to do what I had to do to survive,” explained Tibbits, who now has her own cleaning businesses, Cleaning with Cass, serving homes in Hanover and Lebanon.

“A lot of us were single moms trying to make do for our kids because we didn’t have help from the father. Some of the girls were maybe former addicts at one time, too,” she said. “This stigma plays into why some women didn’t speak up or feel strong enough to take better action.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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