Unhappy Trails: Female Truckers Say They Faced Rape and Abuse in Troubled Training Program

Unhappy Trails: Female Truckers Say They Faced Rape and Abuse in Troubled Training Program

Close to a decade ago, hungry for a change, Tracy left a stable but dull office job in the upper Midwest and hit the road. She took a bus to Iowa, where she enrolled in truck driving school. Eight days later, she says, with minimal classwork, bookwork, or driving time, she left with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in her hand.

“If I’d said I could drive that truck, I would have been lying,” she says.

Tracy, who was then 35 years old (and who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy) attended a driving school that contracts with an Iowa-based trucking company called Cedar Rapids Steel Transport Van Expedited, or CRST, one of the two dozen largest trucking companies in the U.S. (CRST says it has an annual revenue of $1.3 billion and employs roughly 7,000 people.)

The company, fully apprised of what an eight-day course couldn’t cover, didn’t expect her to leave CDL school knowing how to drive: From Iowa, she rode another bus down to Oklahoma City, where she got on the truck of a more seasoned driver, a man who was supposed to teach her the rules of the road and help her safely log the hours she needed before she could legally drive solo.

The company’s recruiting materials say trainees must spend a minimum of 28 days and 14,000 miles with a company trainer. Tracy made it 24 days, by the skin of her teeth.

In her recollection, the trainer, whose name Jezebel is withholding because we couldn’t independently verify his identity, almost immediately started plying her with unwanted and unwelcome sexual attention. “It continually got worse,” she says.

The trainer started off by telling her that one of the two fold-down bunk beds in the truck was broken.

“He told me the upper bed was broke and I’d have to sleep in his bed with him,” she says scornfully. “I declined that.” She ran across another woman who was training on another truck, who showed her how to get the bunk down.

“I got back on the truck, had it down, and made a bed,” she says. Her trainer got back on the truck, took a look, and said only that he “didn’t think that one worked.”

After that, she says, he started claiming that at truck stop showers along their route, management would only let them have one shower room at a time. “He said we’d have to shower together.” She declined that too.

“He hardly ever let me drive,” Tracy says. “I’d get bored and sit with my elbows on my knees and my chin resting on my hands . He’d smack me on the head and tell me I was in the way of his mirrors. He slapped my ass. He slapped me on the thigh. He told one of the people we were delivering to that we were late because I was his wife, I was pregnant and I was having morning sickness. They bring me Sprite and soda crackers and I’m looking at them like they’re crazy.”

For more than three weeks, Tracy kept telling herself she could handle his attentions.

“But it got really bad,” she says. The trainer started making ominous remarks, things like, “I only have a few more days left and then I’m going to have you.”

The slapping got progressively less playful. “He would slap me on the thigh so hard my leg welted and you could see it through my jeans,” she says. “He grabbed my leg so hard a handprint was bruised into my leg. You could see it. There was no doubt about it.”

She’d never been that far from her family, and her cellphone kept losing a signal every time she tried to call her mother, which she had to do discreetly. Nonetheless: “He figured that out. And he’d say things to me like, ‘Your phone don’t work anymore. What are you gonna do if I just stop and let you out right here?”

Finally, as the miles crawled by and she grew increasingly desperate, Tracy called her recruiter, the woman who’d persuaded her to come to CRST and earn her CDL to begin with. She’d encountered male CRST employees at the terminals that truck drivers stop at along their routes, but she was reluctant to tell them what was going on. “It’s not always easy to tell a man. Sometimes, too, it’d be the middle of the night. The only guys there were mechanics. What were they going to do?”

Tracy says the recruiter got on the phone with her trainer and instructed him to drop her off at a bus station. “They sent me home because they felt I ‘had enough training,’” she says. Not long after, she was assigned a co-driver and went back to work, still shaken and bruised from her training experience.

“I needed a job,” she says simply, by way of explaining her decision to return to CRST. She puts her experience into my perspective: “He slapped me around a few times, but it’s done and gone. At least I wasn’t raped.”

This May, three women—Cathy Sellars, Claudia Lopez, and Leslie Fortune—sued CRST, alleging they were sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped during training with the company. The women say they and other female drivers have to deal with constant endangerment during their training periods, where they were trapped with abusive men in the cab of a truck for weeks on end.

Female trainees, they and other women in the industry say, face threats of rape, threats that they’ll be failed if they don’t agree to perform sexual favors, threats that they’ll be thrown out of the truck and left by the side of the road. The plaintiffs allege that CRST is a “hostile work environment” for women and that truckers face retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment or abuse. The lawsuit also says women are told if their potential trainers or co-drivers are smokers and where they’re from, but aren’t given any information about whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

Each woman details harrowing experiences: Lopez alleges that she awoke one night to find her trainer “naked and on top of her, with his penis erect.” She grabbed a screwdriver she kept under her pillow as a weapon and fled the truck. When she requested a new co-driver, she was sent a list of potential replacements with the man’s name on it.

Sellars describes repeated and serious harassment, starting when she was taking her two-week training classes at a terminal in Riverside and worsening once she stepped aboard her first truck with her first trainer, who she says started masturbating in front of her the first night they traveled together, as the two watched a movie. He asked if she wanted to “join him.”

Sellars says she declined and retreated to her bunk. The following morning, the complaint says, the trainer was “visibly angry” with her. The next night, after they shut down, he came into the sleeper berth and began pulling her shirt off. She struggled away and again fled to her bunk. The following day, she called dispatch, complaining to a fleet manager, who she says told her he’d known the driver for a long time “and didn’t think he would do anything like that.” A human resources representative, she says, told her that it was “her word against his,” even though they hadn’t yet talked to the other driver.

Sellars was eventually re-assigned to a new co-driver, according to the complaint, who showed her a video of himself of “being tied up and held for ransom with a knife by a stuffed reindeer and bear.” According to the complaint, he then said he was “going to do that to her.”

The complaint says Sellars brushed off the comment as a joke, until the following day, when the trainer said again that he and his “friends” wanted to tie her up. She alleges he became enraged and threatening when she called her husband and daughter to tell them what was going on, then asked him to drive their final few miles because she was tired and afraid her driving was getting impaired. She also called dispatch to tell them she was too tired to drive safely. Her trainer lost it, according to the complaint:

Enraged and yelling at Ms. Sellars that she was “going to regret telling on him,” he shoved her into the passenger seat, smashing her left shoulder and head into the passenger side door and window. Ms. Sellars grabbed her purse and told [Trainer] she was getting off the truck. He replied “not until I tell you you’re getting off,” and began driving. She repeatedly asked to be let off the truck, and asked where she was going, which he refused to answer. When [Trainer] began driving he pulled a knife out of his pocket and rested it on his right leg. He told Ms. Sellars to “shut up and sit down.” As he drove, he alternately set the knife on the dash within reach, or held it and toyed with it in his lap.

The suit says Sellars eventually escaped the truck near Gallup, New Mexico and called the police, filing a kidnapping report against the driver. Later, she says she learned he was still driving for CRST.

Jezebel reached that driver for comment; in a phone conversation, he defended himself at length, saying the accusations were found to be unfounded by both the police and CRST. “The allegations were frivolous, they were not supported even by the police and it was dropped,” he said. “I continued training with the company.” In truth, he said, Sellars was angry that he was going to report to the company that she was an unskilled driver: “I will say this, ma’am, the issue started when she couldn’t drive. That’s how all this started. I was her fifth trainer. She had an issue with each one of them. She couldn’t drive. She couldn’t see.”

He also disputes that she wasn’t free to get off the truck, saying that in New Mexico they passed through a port of entry staffed by highway patrol officers whom she could have asked for help. He also denied having a knife, saying the police didn’t find one in the truck. He argued that CRST’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy actually made it easy for Sellars to accuse him without proof: “Being in the truck with a female, if she was mad at you, it was easier for her to say you assaulted her.”

The lawsuit claims, though, that drivers who are accused of harassment or assault aren’t fired, but merely added to a list known internally as “no females”—a warning not to put female trainees in their trucks. The female trainees themselves don’t have access to the “no females” list, according to Giselle Schuetz, an attorney for the plaintiffs: “Our plaintiffs don’t have any way of knowing who’s on that list.”

An attorney representing CRST noted to Jezebel that the lawsuit was only recently filed and the company hasn’t yet responded to it in court. They provided us with this statement:

CRST takes these allegations seriously. To ensure a safe work environment, the company has a strict policy against discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. In the 2007 case brought by the EEOC against CRST, a federal trial court in Iowa rejected the EEOC’s allegation that CRST had engaged in a pattern and practice of tolerating sexual harassment of its female drivers. The case was ultimately dismissed in its entirety. As it did in the EEOC case, CRST will fully and vigorously defend itself in the Sellars lawsuit, and is confident that it will again prevail. Moreover, within the last year, Ms. Sellars filed an administrative complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing contesting these identical policies and practices. After an investigation, the DFEH found no evidence to support these claims and dismissed her case. CRST is confident the result will be the same in the underlying claims alleged by plaintiffs in this matter.

As their statement mentions, the lawsuit filed by Cathy Sellars, Claudia Lopez, and Leslie Fortune is not the first time CRST has dealt with sexual assault accusations. In 2007, the company was accused by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission of ignoring female drivers who reported assault in a class-action lawsuit. The class began with about 150 women who said they’d been subjected to harassment, rape or assault, going back as far as 1999.

The group was ultimately winnowed down to 65 women, but the suit was dismissed after an appeals court found that the EEOC hadn’t exhausted all their other remedies before bringing suit. (After a lengthy appeals process, the EEOC was granted permission in 2014 to begin pursuing each plaintiff’s case individually.)

CRST lost a similar lawsuit in 2011, paying Karen Shank $1.5 million (an appeals court upheld the judgment in January 2015). Shank alleged that her trainer, John Wilson, subjected her to constant sexual comments and touching, and that her reports to the corporate office were ignored. The company refused to pay for two separate motel rooms, with terrible consequences: Shank said Wilson raped her. She said she froze and was unable to fight him off, and in court testimony described“staring at the curtains” in defeat during the attack. She left the trucking industry after working for CRST and spent more than six years fighting her lawsuit.

The new suit, according to Schuetz, is somewhat different than the 2007 one, in that it alleges that CRST has a “pattern or practice” of ignoring sexual assault reports from its employees. Although CRST hasn’t yet filed an answer to the lawsuit, they did submit a request asking that references to the 2007 suit be removed. Those references include graphic sexual assault allegations from a number of women: a driver who alleged, for example, that her co-driver constantly watched pornography in front of her, insistently invited her to sleep in his bunk, and told her lengthy, wistful stories about a previous trainee who would masturbate in front of him.

As Fast Company pointed out in May, the lawsuit against CRST, and what it alleges about working conditions in trucking, has been largely ignored. There’s only room for one industry-wide gender discrimination story at a time, it seems, and Silicon Valley has taken the lion’s share of public attention. It’s hard to miss the class element that’s likely at work—a greater interest in the suffering of women in a money-flush, very public, buzz-heavy industry. And, although trucking is a core part of how the American economy functions, there’s a general ignorance about how it works, a lack of visibility that has benefited some in the trucking industry and hurt many others.

And while gender discrimination in any industry hurts the prospects of individual women as well as the economic future of that industry and the practices of society at large, it’s worth noting that the trucking industry problems—though well-documented and publicized through lawsuits—are of a nature that separate them, even in a purely criminal sense, from the discrimination that affects women in tech. Female truckers describe having to fend off sexual attackers with knives they kept under their pillows when they slept, and report being dumped by the side of the road at midnight when they refuse to allow their trainers to rape them.

The new complaint states that the plaintiffs, as well as at least two other female drivers, started carrying knives and screwdrivers to protect themselves from threats from male co-drivers. Leslie Fortune additionally started carrying a Taser, but says it was little help: all four of the co-drivers she rode with during her time at CRST pressured her repeatedly for sex, she says, including one who told her he was interested in what it would be like to have sex with a “colored” woman and another who requested she record herself urinating “because he liked hearing women pee,” per the suit.

All three women say they were “constructively discharged” from CRST, but would’ve continued working had it not been for the threats and harassment.

Tracy, the woman who says her trainer slapped her hard enough to leave bruises, stayed on at CRST, three years in all, because she needed money, because she had few other options, and because she was determined. She joined the class action lawsuit. As soon as it was dismissed, she alleges that she stopped getting assigned long runs, which she believes was the company’s subtle way of punishing her.

“All companies do it,” she says. “It’s called punishment. They don’t openly say it, but drivers will tell you, that’s what it is. Bottom line is if your wheels aren’t moving, you’re not making any money.”

Trucking is a tough industry to survive in. Since 2011, according to the American Trucking Associations, the annual turnover rate among large trucking companies is 90 percent, meaning that 90 percent of their driver pool leaves every single year and has to be replaced. In the first quarter of 2015, the ATA celebrated a record “low” turnover rate of 84 percent.

The “driver shortage” has been fretted over for literally decades, with the trucking industry and economists trying to figure out why truckers don’t last and how to put enough responsible butts in seats to get the nation’s cargo where it needs to go. One suggestion, as the New York Times mentioned last year, might be to pay more: the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that median income for a long-haul truck driver in 2012 was $38,200, which is not exactly the kind of money that would lure most people to leave home for weeks or months on end. But trucking has its own steady attractions; it promises travel and on-the-job training, and you don’t have to have a college degree.

Somewhat ironically, the best idea the trucking industry has come up with to fill their labor shortage is: hiring women. Groups like the industry-supported Women in Trucking Association have tried for years to persuade women to enter trucking, touting the job’s wages and benefits and pointing out that trucking companies are increasingly adopting things like seat heights and automatic transmissions to make driving physically less fatiguing and difficult for smaller people. Women in Trucking says their efforts are working, with an estimated 200,000 women now in the industry —a 50 percent increase between 2005 and 2013— who drive alongside some three million men.

At the same time, though, concern about “CDL mills” has been growing for more than a decade. CDL mills, the subject of a 2009 Dan Rather report, are driving schools accused of handing out commercial driver’s licenses with abandon and putting drivers on the road too soon. Many of these drivers join companies with trainee programs, of which some of the largest are CRST, CR England, Central Refrigerated and Swift. Many of these companies, like CRST, will reimburse the cost of the school tuition if the trainees make a commitment to drive for them for a certain amount of time after they graduate.

In CRST’s case, the required commitment is eight months, during which a tuition fee of $3,950 is subtracted from the trainees’ paychecks. This tuition reimbursement requirement, according to the female truckers’ current lawsuit, leaves the women in an appalling bind: tolerate a dangerous co-driver, or be left on a roadside or on a bus back home, penniless and owing several thousand dollars to the company.

“[Trucking companies] twist that driver shortage around, and say they want to fill those spots with women,” says Desiree Wood, a trucker who’s been driving for eight years and who began at Covenant, another trucking company with a trainee program. “But why do you want to encourage women to join an industry where they’re getting sexually assaulted? They’re all accomplices to lead these women in to the worst situations possible.”

In 2010, alarmed by the many stories she was hearing from women who’d been harassed or assaulted during trainee programs, Wood founded Real Women in Trucking, a nonprofit advocacy group that draws attention to unsafe working conditions for women in the field. (She was also interviewed in the 2009 Dan Rather report on CDL mills; Rather noted, with what looked like polite shock, that where the field was once filled with “Marlboro men” there were now “housewives” among the people becoming truckers, “manhandling the innards of a big rig.”)

“It originally started as a protest group,” Wood says. She felt that the Women in Trucking Association wasn’t making the dangers of the job clear to women they were trying to recruit, and still doesn’t acknowledge the risk of rape and sexual assault. (Jezebel sent the Women in Trucking Association a list of questions; the organization hasn’t yet replied.)

On the Real Women website, Wood makes it clear that “sexual harassment,” to her, doesn’t mean the odd unwanted compliment or two from a trainer or a fellow trucker:

When I say sexual harassment I do not mean someone saying you have a nice ass at a truck stop. I mean being put on a truck to learn to drive with someone who tries to badger or force you to have sex with them in order to learn to drive the truck. I am talking about trainers who say they will not let you pass if you do not have sex with them. I am talking about dispatchers who call you for phone sex while you are driving all night and withhold miles if you don’t comply. I am talking about companies who retaliate on women drivers when they report these acts and protect the predators.

Wood says she hears the most complaints from women about trainee programs,. She blames two things: the trainee program itself, and a “lease purchase program” popular among some companies where newly-minted drivers are pressured to go deep in debt to buy trucks from the company.

“They’re pushing people to buy a truck before they really know anything about trucking. Then they’re saddled with debt, freaking out, and the company tells them to become a trainer and take students,” she says. “It’s a process of indoctrination: get people in so much debt that they have to drive and teach. They’re hostile to students, but they have no choice.”

Co-driving is a regular part of the job even after graduating, a way to make sure the wheels of the truck never stop moving and the cargo gets to its destination as fast as possible. As many as four drivers can ride to a truck during short-distance training, and up to three on long-distance trips, though one or two is more common. And co-driving is inherently difficult, Wood says. “There are very few successful teams unless they’re a married couple. They already know each other’s bad habits, their weird idiosyncrasies. But when you’re taking two people who’ve never met one another and throwing them together and expecting them to do this really responsible job it gets nasty and ugly.”

And of course, in cases where a driver is a sexual predator, co-driving is a nightmare, particularly for trainees, who Wood describes as “completely vulnerable and out of their element.”

Through Real Women in Trucking, Wood has learned about how trucking companies handle a “problem” driver with lots of assault allegations: often, by juggling him around among students or co-drivers, saying euphemistically that he has a “personality problem.”

“They won’t disclose if they had sexual assault allegations made against them,” Wood says, or other serious issues: “If they have a violent temper, or had people complain about their hygiene practices, or their driving practices. You just just go blindly into the next situation. So they let the perpetrators just disappear back into the population.”

The consequences for women who complain can be extremely high, Wood says, because there’s just one accusation a driver needs to make against her to derail her career. “‘She can’t drive.’ That’s all anybody needs to say about you as a woman. If you’re on a truck with a man and he’s naked and says, ‘You need to have sex with me or I’ll tell them you can’t drive,’ that’s real in trucking. Somebody saying you can’t drive is a death sentence.”

Tracy, the woman whose trainer she says slapped her until she bruised, thinks there has to be some better or more thorough screening mechanism before two people climb on a truck together, mentioning the time she learned that one co-driver had served time in prison for rape only after he got in a minor traffic accident while driving with her.

Jezebel asked CRST’s attorney if they would hire someone with a felony or a sexual offense on their record. The attorney responded:

As previously stated, the CRST takes steps to ensure a workplace free of harassment, retaliation and discrimination for its employees. Due to the pending litigation, CRST cannot respond to specific allegations, but intends to vigorously defend itself in court and to seek vindication from unfounded and baseless allegations through the judicial process.

The way things currently work, Tracy says, you can meet someone and then moments later be signed on to spend weeks alone with them in a confined space. “I’ve literally picked up trainees in the middle of the night, pack your bags, let’s go. They climb on the truck in the middle of the night. You’ve got nowhere at all to get any red flags going. You could get on a truck, go lie down, wake up and realize you just got on that truck with Hitler.”

Carmen, who requested she be identified by a pseudonym, says she started her training at CRST around three and a half years ago, but got off her first truck at a terminal in Montana after only a few weeks, after similar problems with her trainer.

“Every time I would lay down to try to sleep and I’d wake up and he’d have his hands all over me,” she says. “I knew we were going to Fontana,” a town in California where CRST has a terminal. She was stuck there for two full weeks, waiting for the company to assign her a new co-driver. Meanwhile, things got worse, she says: The terminal manager there took a liking to me and sexually harassed me.”

Carmen says the terminal manager got her phone number out of her work file. “He started sending me text messages, saying, ‘I want you to send me a picture of your tits,’ all this stuff.” One night, she says, he told her to bring her stuff into the office to keep it safe. “He had all the lights turned out.” She says the man grabbed her, pushed his body against hers, and groped her until she broke free.

Carmen says she spent two weeks at the terminal, waiting for a female co-driver and refusing to get on a truck with anyone else. Day after day, she’d call a dispatcher at CRST, she says, asking if any women were available. She’d always be told no. Then she learned from a male driver who stopped at the terminal that he’d just been given a list of five available co-drivers, all women, at his request.

“That’s how much they didn’t care,” she says, heatedly. “Not even how much they didn’t care, how much they’d promote that behavior by giving a man a list of only women. Why wouldn’t a red flag go up? Why wouldn’t you say, why does this guy only want to be with women?”

Carmen isn’t a party in the new lawsuit. “They said too much time had passed and I never pursued it. I was kinda traumatized.” She spent only four months at the company in all, completing another few runs with different trainers. But she was on an eight-month contract, and says no one would hire her while she was technically with CRST. She says she spent the next six months working for “foreign companies” with poor safety standards, trying her best to get a year’s experience so she could finally land a decent job.

“That was a whole new set of traumatic experiences,” she says. “Driving a truck in January in Maine with no heat. My lips were so swollen and my hands were blue. But I had to get a year.”

Carmen eventually managed to buy her own truck and become an independent operator, a goal for many women who enter trucking. Tracy and Desiree work for different companies. Tracy’s new place of employment also trains student drivers, and she says that her safety concerns remain.

“I don’t see any changes that’ve happened to make students safer,” she says. “This is the ultimate job if you want to be a serial killer or a serial rapist. You can travel hundreds of miles a day. So if you pick somebody up, you can kill them in the privacy of your truck, drop them off in the middle of nowhere or even throw them in a trash can in another state. If they were a transient person, no one is ever going to find out.”

Desiree Wood says she vividly remembers her first orientation, the day she started CDL school. She was listening to the conversations around her.

“They’re all sharing stories about what they just got out of jail for,” she says, half-laughing. “I’m all for everybody getting a second chance in life. I’ve had trouble in my past too. I needed a new life and I’m grateful for having a second chance in a troubled training program. But some of these people, you shouldn’t put them on a truck with another human being because you don’t know where they came from or what their thing is. Was it youthful indiscretions? Do they have a history of violence? Why do I have to live in a box with somebody you haven’t screened very well to learn how to do the most dangerous job in the world?”

Update, August 26:

Ellen Voie, the founder, president and CEO of Women in Trucking, responded to Wood’s allegation that the organization doesn’t acknowledge sexual assault in the industry by sending us the following statement on August 21. She points out that WIT has created an anti-harassment guide for trucking companies and done self-defense seminars for female drivers. She also points out that when a trucking company called New Prime tried to mandate that female drivers only be trained by other women, they were sued by the EEOC and forced to drop the practice.

Here’s Voie’s statement in full:

Women In Trucking Association, Inc. serves over 4,000 individual and corporate members. You can see the corporate members here:
We are aware of the lawsuits. We are proactive by helping female drivers understand the risks (on our website). We’ve also had live demonstrations of self defense techniques and had a webinar for drivers to learn more about self defense. In September we will have a speaker, Debbie Gardner, talk about self defense and self esteem. Our members become educated in order to avoid situations that might arise with a another driver or a trainer, or even a truck stop or loading dock employee.
We have also prepared an Anti-Harassment Employment Guide for carriers and offer it free to any corporate member.
No trucking company wants its drivers to suffer any harassment. It’s an unfortunate consequence of a situation where two unrelated individuals are in the cab of a truck for days or weeks at a time. One carrier instituted a same gender training policy and was sued by the EEOC and has had to return to its former policies.
My suggestion would be for carriers to use an in-cab video camera in the front cab of the truck (not the sleeper berth) to record any interaction between the driver and trainee. This would protect both individuals. Unfortunately, many drivers do not like this option due to privacy issues. We are also asking truck manufacturers to install an alarm system in the sleeper berth in the event a driver is subject to an assault or break in.
Sexual assault is an issue in any environment where you have two individuals in a close working situation, especially when one of them has a more powerful role (as a trainer.) All male dominated occupations face this challenge, but not many of them have a living area which includes a bed, only inches away.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Desiree Wood began at CRST; she trained at Covenant. It also said she is an independent owner-operator; she works for a company. The post also also been edited to reflect that four drivers may ride together on short-distance trips, but a maximum of three will go on longer runs.

Contact the author at [email protected].
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Illustration by Jim Cooke

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