Rigged System

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Photo by Flickr/Tony Webster
"The driver she was shadowing had slapped her ass. Tried to convince her to sleep with him in a single bed in a motel room. Listened in on her phone calls. Waited for her outside the truck-stop showers."

On a cold April night in Wyoming, Tracy Livingston realized she was in a tight spot. Outside, snow was on the ground, and she was alone in a semitruck with a driver who was threatening her. “I could just leave you here on the side of the road,” he told her, “and I don’t know what would happen to you.”

Tracy was going through truck-driver training, and a month of shadowing an experienced driver—taking turns driving, and often sleeping in the back of the cab—was mandatory. Her cell phone was out of range, and she was too scared to reach for the communication system to call their dispatcher.

The driver she was shadowing had slapped her ass. Tried to convince her to sleep with him in a single bed in a motel room. Listened in on her phone calls. Waited for her outside the truck-stop showers. But she needed the job, and wasn’t sure what to do.

Tracy was in her mid-30s and had never really been away from home without her family. She had gone through trucking school and now owed them $6,000. “I wasn’t in the position to just cough up thousands of dollars; if I was, I wouldn’t be here in the first place,” Tracy said. “Through the whole time training, he had told me stories of how things could be much worse. I kept telling myself I could deal with this, it’s not so bad.”

But after he yanked her off the sleeper bunk by her leg and told her he was going to “take care of her” before she got off the truck, she finally called her dispatcher and was removed from the situation. “He was given a six-month suspension from training,” Tracy says. “Then he was given another woman to train and he did it again.”

In a way, truck drivers are modern-day cowboys. They spend days, weeks, or months at a time on long lonely roads, hauling toilet paper, beer, vegetables, and more from where they are to where they need to be, through the sleet and snow of winter, the fog and haze of early morning, and the downpours of spring.

The job is part pure physicality—hauling and cranking and shifting big gears—and part idleness, waiting for your truck to be loaded or unloaded, waiting for your turn in the truck-stop shower, waiting for your exit off the freeway. There’s no doubt the job is rough—and for the approximately 200,000 women that drive trucks, it’s even rougher. Many don’t even make it through training to where they’re able to drive the truck alone. But it’s not the heavy lifting or the long hours that get most of them—it’s the mistreatment, bullying, and abuse.

For women like Tracy, the path to recourse is not always clear. In the brief period before they get out on the road, many trainees aren’t made aware that an HR office even exists, let alone given a number to reach that office if they need to. To make matters worse, the most dangerous incidents often happen at the times when the lowest number of people are staffing the headquarters—late at night or on the weekends.

Allen Smith, a 34-year veteran of trucking and host of the popular web-radio show “Truth About Trucking,” says that the night dispatchers who are on call during off-hours aren’t trained to handle serious situations.

Unlike HR representatives, “Dispatchers are trained to dispatch, and the best they can do is to call 911 for the driver if needed,” Allen says. In a situation like Tracy’s, where her trainer was threatening her late at night on the highway and nowhere near a town, calling 911 isn’t much help. In these cases, Allen says “most often the dispatcher will make light of it and tell them to contact HR ‘in the morning.’”

But as a trainee, it can be difficult to get the right people to listen to your concerns after the fact, especially when dealing with the issue could cause delays in the company’s already-tight shipping schedule. “Communication—there isn’t any,” Tracy said. “Night [shift] doesn’t talk to day, day doesn’t talk to weekends. So if you don’t know who to talk to, you’re dealing with your own crisis yourself.”

Increasingly, more and more women are turning to the internet for support and resources they don’t receive from their companies. When Tracy stumbled onto a blog called Real Women in Trucking (RWIT), headed by an outspoken former truck driver named Desiree Wood, she realized that what had happened to her during training was far more common than she imagined. On Desiree’s blog, there were posts and YouTube videos chronicling harassment and retaliation experienced by Desiree and others like her while training to become truck drivers for big carrier companies.

Desiree was a victim of abuse at the hands of her trainer, who sprayed her face and clothes with bleach and threw her belongings onto the pavement when they got into an argument late at night at a New Mexico casino. He left her there, stranded for days, with bruises on her arms from their altercation. She filed a formal complaint with the police, and continued to follow up for months, but says her paperwork was misplaced and she was given the runaround, all while her trainer continued to work with other women.

She says her experience is a common one for women alone in a truck with a male trainer for weeks at a time—not only does the trainer have the power to pass or fail them, but the isolation of the road makes inappropriate behavior harder for companies to catch. “They call it ‘the sleeper test,’” Desiree said. “They say, ‘If you want to get trained to drive a truck, you’re gonna have sex with me, and if you don’t, I’m leaving you in the desert.’ And then basically when the girl goes to the company they say, ‘Well he said you can’t drive and you’re just making this all up.’”

Desiree started RWIT after her harrowing experience, and it’s grown into a network of women drivers who use social media and technology to virtually support each other as they navigate their way on the road, sometimes separated by thousands of miles.

Sandi Talbott, a 72-year-old woman who has been driving a truck for 35 years, is an active member of the group and participates in their weekly conference calls. Since citizens band radio—the communication system used by truckers to connect with other drivers—has historically been a hostile place for women, the calls act as a kind of a women-only CB radio.

Sandi says the women talk about everything from safety to hygiene, and have a former truck driver–turned–dietitian participate once a month to talk about health and fitness in the trucking lifestyle, where drivers are stationary for hours and access to healthy food options is limited. She even has a weekly long-distance walking club—women join the conference call from wherever they might be, and chat together while exercising.

RWIT also provides much-needed support about more serious matters. “We talk about male trainers,” Sandi said. “We tell women how to document the negative things that go on, how to report them—and that we are here to support them, that they can call us.”

A recent online radio show hosted by RWIT featured the attorney who won a $1.5 million judgment for her client, who claimed she was harassed while training for CRST International, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies (the case is currently being appealed). The attorney spoke about the process of the case and gave advice to women who were looking to sue because they’d experienced harassment or retaliation.

During the show, Desiree spoke about the frustration of trying to report inappropriate or frightening behavior: “I hate the term ‘sexual harassment’; it’s been really overused. I always say ‘sexual misconduct.’ I’m not talking about going to the fuel stop and having guys turn around to look at you. I’m talking about being trapped in a truck with someone talking to you about the porn career you missed out on—the pressuring, attacking, telling you that you have to take a shower with them,” Desiree says. “They don’t have anyone to call, they’re far from home, and in isolation is where this stuff occurs.”

Tracy made it through her distressing training experience, took part in a class-action lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the case, which had more than 200 plaintiffs, was dismissed in 2012 due to faulty filing), and has become a trainer herself, mainly to women. “The main reason I became a trainer is to help other women succeed in this job without the harassment,” she states.

She thinks it’s beneficial for both women and men to have a female trainer. “[Men] get insight into how a woman is treated, at the truck stops, with the shippers, because a lot of times it’s not so great,” she says. “A few things require brains instead of muscle—sometimes it’s better to be smarter than the equipment rather than stronger than the equipment.”

And although training can be a frustrating experience for both trainer and trainee—long hours in a tight space with a stranger can be hard even in the best situations—she’s gone on to have good relationships with the women she’s trained, and continues to get phone calls from them as they navigate their new lives as truck drivers. “Some call and ask questions, some call and check in, some of them I know quite a bit about their families,” she says. “You spend four to six weeks in this small space together, you know so much more about them than you could ever imagine.”

And for women who have established themselves in the world of trucking, sometimes loneliness is the biggest issue. The support networks enabled by the internet and technological advances have helped immensely. But sometimes, just being there to pick up the phone and chat until someone gets to their loading station makes all the difference. And for that, Tracy’s happy to help. “I’m just there to listen. That’s what we need sometimes.”

Roxanna Asgarian is a freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and cat. Reprinted from Bitch (Summer 2014), an independent nonprofit feminist media organization dedicated to providing and encouraging an engaged, thoughtful feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture.

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