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Thursday
May312018

Sexual harassment lawsuit against long-haul trucking company in the age of #MeToo

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- “Jane” thought driving a truck would be her ticket into the middle class. She had been working two full-time jobs – one at the local McDonald’s, the other as a housekeeper in a hotel – but money was still tight.

“I got so tired of it,” she said. “I was always going. I'd get maybe an hour's sleep on the bus and be at the next job.”

She decided she was ready for a change, so she took a job as a driver at CRST, Expedited Inc., one of the largest team trucking companies in the country with more than 3,500 drivers and average revenues of $1.5 billion per year, where she would receive a bigger salary, full benefits and paid vacations.

But Jane is a minority within the male-dominated trucking industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million truck drivers are women, and CRST drivers work in teams, meaning there are two drivers in each cab with bunk beds to sleep in. Teams can cover more ground in a shorter period of time -- 1,100 miles in 24 hours – because the drivers take turns driving the truck, reducing the number of stops and breaks.

In June 2017, Jane said she had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from another driver who entered her truck while she was parked at the CRST terminal in Riverside, Calif. “He went and closed the curtain and started grabbing on me, trying to kiss on me,” said Jane, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “Pulled off my clothes. Like, a constant battle of no, no, get off me, no.”

She filed a report with CRST human resources and received a follow-up letter from an employee relations representative. According to the letter, CRST “conducted an investigation” and took “appropriate action.” Jane said she does not know if the other driver was disciplined.

“Somebody I went to school with as well, they said, yeah, they see him on the roads,” Jane told ABC News. “It’s always a worry of mine that I will run into him.”

Jane soon learned that she wasn’t alone. CRST has faced allegations of widespread sexual harassment for years. In addition to a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2007 which was dismissed, three women filed a lawsuit in October 2015, alleging systemic gender discrimination, including “hostile work environment harassment based on sex; and retaliation for complaining about harassment in the workplace.”

On March 30, 2017, the judge in the case ruled that the case could move forward as a class action lawsuit.

According to Joshua Friedman, lead attorney in the case, between 2015 and 2017, nearly 300 women employed or formerly employed by CRST also filed complaints with the company, alleging a range of offenses, from propositions for sex, to allegations of assault and rape. At CRST, new drivers are required to pair with a trainer, also known as a lead driver, and go out on the road for 28 days of driving instruction. The trainer’s recommendation and documentation influence whether or not a trainee passes and becomes a CRST driver. Critics say this creates a vulnerability for female trainees, as male trainers have enormous power in determining if they are able to start careers in trucking. Trainers can also damage the women’s financial stability, as trainees who do not pass and enter an eight month employment contract often have to refund the company the cost of training.

“One of the most common complaints is from women trainees, who make up the overwhelming majority of the class, who were made to understand that their passage--that is being able to move on to be drivers and receive actual pay--was dependent on providing sexual favors. That could be either explicit or implicit,” said Friedman. “Another common form of sexual harassment was using very vulgar sexual speech…occasionally going so far as to say this is what I’d like to do to you or this is what I am going to do you.”

Leslie, one of the plaintiffs, alleges in the lawsuit that after she had finished her classroom training, she was paired with a trainer assigned to show her the ropes on the road, who threatened not to pass her if she did not have sex with him. After complaining to CRST, she finished her training with a different driver. Leslie alleges, though, that she faced threats and harassment from co-drivers and that the company did little after she complained. In one case, the driver was promoted to classroom trainer.

“There is a common policy that unites the sexual harassment that all the class members complained about,” said Friedman. “The defendant's refusal to believe the complaints of women that they were sexually harassed by their co-drivers in cabs of trucks unless there was an eyewitness or a confession.”

The company, in its answer in the lawsuit, denies wrongdoing. In a letter to ABC News, David Rusch, CEO of CRST, refutes Friedman’s claims that the company refused to believe accusers unless there was a witness to the alleged misconduct.

“It is not and has never been CRST’s policy to require a witness or an admission in order to corroborate an allegation of sexual harassment,” Rusch defended his company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints. Rusch claimed that even when a complaint is not corroborated, the alleged harasser is addressed, retrained on the company’s sexual harassment policy, and barred from driving with women.

Rusch detailed new policies to help women who have felt threatened. According to him, since the lawsuit has been filed, CRST has added personnel to its investigative staff and sought feedback from drivers and industry experts. Addressing concerns that women who leave their truck due to harassment face financial ramifications, Rusch wrote, “CRST implemented a new category of paid leave especially for employees who complain of sexual harassment.”

Friedman said these actions are not enough. He encouraged CRST’s clients, some of the largest retailers in the country, to hold the company accountable.

“[These retailers] use this company as part of their supply chain and I don't think that anything is going to change until we get a court order or until those companies step up and say we're just not going to allow this to happen to women,” Friedman said.

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