Almost two months ago now, a jury rejected Ellen Pao’s claims that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her gender while an employee of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The verdict was pored over, torn apart, and debated for weeks–and even though Pao lost, the case brought attention to major gender imbalances in the technology industry. Which is great.
Still, gender imbalance in other industries, like freight, has gone relatively unnoticed, and in some cases can be far more extreme.
Women truck drivers who worked with CRST Expedited, Inc., one of the nation’s largest players in transportation, filed suit Monday claiming that the company discriminated against them on the basis of their sex, creating a “hostile work environment,” and retaliating against them for speaking out against their male abusers. The complaint filed in the Central District of California names three women–Cathy Sellars, Claudia Lopez, and Leslie Fortune–as lead plaintiffs in a class action. The class, encompassing presently and formerly employed female truck drivers for CRST, may involve more than 100 women who have been subjected to what lawyers describe as “systemic gender discrimination,” according to the filing.
Nearly 70% of all the freight tonnage moved in the U.S. goes on trucks, according to the American Trucking Association–some 9.2 billion tons of freight annually, moved by more than 3 million truck drivers. While startups like Lyft and Uber have tried to raise the profile of women car and taxi drivers, female representation in trucking has remained stubbornly low, amounting to roughly 5% of the industry in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The plaintiffs in the case against CRST allege that while on the road, male drivers regularly engage in “sexually offensive conduct,” including propositioning female drivers for sex, requesting sex as a condition of passing driver training, sexually assaulting female drivers, threatening rape or assault, and physically touching and intentionally exposing themselves to women.
In the terminals, where drivers may begin and end their trips or stay for a limited time period, “male drivers regularly proposition female drivers for sex, comment on their bodies, and discuss the appearance of women in the terminal and what they did sexually with women,” the complaint said. CRST supervisors who worked in the terminals–including terminal managers–would have had knowledge of the offensive sexual remarks and conduct because they were made openly, in common areas, the complaint alleges.
Should the women refuse, according to the complaint, “retaliatory measures could include, but were not limited to, kidnapping them, kicking them off shared trucks, making false reports of their misconduct, threatening them with weapons, threatening physical harm, spreading rumors that they are prostitutes, preventing them from contacting CRST for assistance, and refusing to assist them with work-related tasks.”
Paul Mata, an attorney for CRST, says that the company “has a clear track record of enforcing strict policies against discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment on the job,” and calls the claims “frivolous.”
The complaint also calls into question the structure of CRST’s new-driver training program. Typically new drivers are paired with a truck-driver trainer for on-the-road training, and the two are often alone together. The cost of the training program is forgiven by CRST, the complaint said, if the trainee fulfills an eight-month contract.
When a woman is sexually assaulted during training, lawyers said, “Her choice is to remain at CRST and endure the sexual abuse; report it, continue to endure it due to CRST’s indifference to complaints, and suffer retaliation; or quit, owe CRST thousands of dollars, and potentially be sued for payment. When women sue CRST due to sexual harassment, CRST is known to counterclaim to recover the cost of training.”
The suit charges that trainers who sexually assaulted women were “virtually never disciplined” and often returned to driving even after complaints were filed. Because female trainees depended on trainers for promotions and raises, CRST’s policy “actively encouraged sexual assault,” the complaint said, because “the trainer controlled virtually every aspect of the trainee’s life, including when she showers, uses the bathroom, eats, and sleeps.” As a result, women truck drivers carry, sleep with, and use weapons such as tasers, knives, and screwdrivers for personal protection from their male co-drivers, the complaint said.
This is not the only recent suit filed against a major trucking entity. In March, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against United Parcel Service, finding that Peggy Young, a former UPS driver, had the right to sue the company for discrimination. Lawyers for Young argued that the company had erred in refusing to give her a less arduous shift after she was told by a medical professional not to lift heavy items while pregnant.
Trucking is a unique workplace environment, but Title VII and other employment laws are applicable in the case, said Giselle Schuetz, a lawyer for the female truck drivers.
“Just as it protects women who work in offices, Title VII applies with equal force in traditionally male-dominated fields,” she said. “Women make many sacrifices to obtain job training in a new field in hopes of improving their lives and better supporting their families. They should not be required to endure sexual assaults, harassment, and humiliation in order to drive a truck.”
CRST began in the 1950s as Cedar Rapids Steel Transport, hauling iron and steel in the Midwest. Today, it is one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, with more than 4,500 trucks, according to the company. Headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the company has driver terminals in three different states.
Sellars, who was employed by CRST as a truck driver from December 2013 to the present, complained to her terminal manager about the inappropriate conduct of a fellow driver, according to the complaint, including that she was held at knife point by a trainer who more than once pressured her to have sex with him on the road.
Lopez, another CRST driver who worked with the company from May 2014 to January 2015, said that she woke up in the bunk of her cabin to find her male co-driver lying naked on top of her. He also suggested that he should join her in the shower with him, the complaint said, and ultimately abandoned Lopez near Miami. Upon reporting the matter, the company failed to investigate, the complaint said.
Fortune, the third plaintiff in the case, worked for CRST from October 2013 to January 2015 as a truck driver, and said that during her training in Cedar Rapids, she daily heard offensive sexual remarks from male trainers and co-drivers. En route to Salt Lake City, a male driver became angry when she said she wouldn’t sleep with him. He kicked her off the truck, and when she spoke to her fleet manager, according to the complaint, he “laughed and told her to get back on the truck.”
In September 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against CRST alleging that women drivers were subjected to sex discrimination and retaliation, and that the company failed in handling the matter. In that case, 72 women complained to the company about sexual harassment in 2005 alone, half of whom complained that their male trainer or co-driver had propositioned them for sex, according to court records. Sworn testimony from discovery “revealed a chronic pattern of sexual harassment and sexual assaults by male co-drivers and trainers against women drivers,” lawyers said.
Mata, the attorney for CRST, said that the federal court held then that there was “zero evidence to support the EEOC’s claim that CRST exhibited a pattern and practice of tolerating sexual harassment in the workplace.”
“Instead,” he said, “the court found that CRST went to great lengths to provide a safe workplace for its employees and had properly responded to any allegations of harassment on the job.”
The case was ultimately dismissed when the court found that the EEOC did not conciliate before filing suit, and the merits of the women’s claims were never decided on. They are now part of the current complaint against CRST.