For the second time in less than a decade, long-haul truckload carrier CRST International Inc. is battling allegations that it ignores systemic problems of sexual harassment and assault against female drivers at its CRST Expedited unit. And as it did the last time, the $1.5 billion parent firm said it would mount a vigorous defense against what it calls scurrilous attempts to damage its reputation.
The latest salvo was fired on May 18, when three female drivers—one of whom still drives for CRST Expedited—sued the unit in federal district court in California. The drivers charge that they have been subject to unwanted sexual advances by male driver trainers and that the company perpetuates what is known as a "pattern and practice" of gender discrimination by, as a matter of corporate policy, failing to respond to repeated complaints by female drivers, or in some cases, punishing them for speaking up.
The 74-page complaint seeks class-action status on behalf of more than 100 female drivers at the unit. It also seeks an injunction against the company, as well as front and back pay and unspecified punitive damages. Women account for about 15 percent of the unit's approximately 4,000 drivers, according to the parent company. All of the unit's drivers operate in two-person teams, a system designed to minimize vehicle downtime in order to meet time-sensitive delivery requirements.
The complaint contains extraordinarily graphic and disturbing content. The women claim they were routinely ogled and propositioned for sex by male trainers, who would threaten the women with physical harm if they refused. There were incidents in the complaint of women drivers being kicked out of their trucks and abandoned in remote locations after refusing to have sex. The women would be responsible for getting home or finding lodging at their own expense, according to the complaint.
Trainers at Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based CRST are authorized to pass or fail trainees after 28 days of on-road driving instruction; male trainers have threatened to fail women if their advances were rebuffed, thus potentially denying them jobs at the company, according to the complaint.
Under CRST policy, a new driver must stay with the company for at least eight months upon completion of training or reimburse the company for the training costs, which run into the thousands of dollars. If a woman is sexually assaulted during that period, she can endure it for the sake of keeping her job, report it, or quit and risk being sued for the training costs, the complaint alleged. "When women sue CRST due to sexual harassment, CRST is known to counterclaim to recover the cost of training," according to the complaint.
Male drivers accused of harassment or assault are not subject to disciplinary action beyond being banned from driving with a woman for six months, according to the complaint.
Cathy Sellars, one of the plaintiffs, reported being harassed by Lydell Wilkerson, a male trainer who may have been assigned to train Sellars, according to the complaint. Sellars called Karen Carlson, CRST's human resources manager, to inform her of Wilkerson's conduct, the complaint alleges. Carlson told Sellars she would investigate the situation, but never replied to her, according to the complaint. When Sellars followed up, Carlson told her "not to worry about it" and that the matter "was none of her business," according to the complaint. Sellars still drives for the unit.VIGOROUS DEFENSE PLANNED
In a statement issued May 21, CRST said that it would "fully and vigorously" defend itself against the allegations, and that it would prevail as it did in 2007, when it defeated a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that the company had tolerated actions of sexual discrimination against female drivers at the unit for the prior eight years.
At the time, Federal District Court Judge Linda R. Reade found that there was no merit to 85 of the 154 claims brought by the EEOC on behalf of female drivers, CRST said in the May 21 statement. An additional 68 claims were dismissed because the judge found that the EEOC violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act in two ways. First, the agency failed to investigate individual sexual harassment claims before filing suit. Second, CRST said that it suggested a means to resolve the dispute—a process known as "conciliation"—but EEOC failed to respond before commencing legal action. (Judge Reade, who ruled the EEOC did not establish the elements of a "pattern and practice" claim as required by law, also hit the agency with a $4.6 million sanction.) The one remaining claim was settled out of court for $50,000, well below the company's projected litigation costs, CRST said. The company added it was prepared to take the agency to court over that claim if necessary.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently overturned the fine, but upheld the lower court's dismissal of the EEOC's claims. The appellate court affirmed Judge Reade's ruling that the agency did not meet its burden of investigating the individual claims before suing CRST Expedited.
Joshua Friedman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview that Judge Reade ruled only on the facts before her. Friedman added that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month in a nontransportation case that the EEOC is only required to engage in a bare minimum of conciliation, thus invalidating that component of Judge Reade's decision. The pending case in California could incorporate evidence generated during the prior dispute, Friedman said. He said the EEOC is not a party to the current proceeding.
David Rusch, CRST International's president and CEO, said in a phone interview this week that he had repeatedly asked the EEOC for guidance on how the company's practices could be improved. The requests fell on deaf ears, he said. CRST finally concluded that the EEOC's main objective was to force the company into a $50 million settlement. CRST spent $15 million in legal fees fighting the agency, according to Rusch. "They thought we would buckle under, but we weren't about to be dragged through the gutter," he said.
Rusch said the judge examined the unit's antiharassment policy and found it to be valid and effective in dealing with grievances brought to its attention.
Friedman argued that although a policy may be valid as a written document, it might have no legal effect when it is implemented. Noting that Sellars alleged that incidents of sexual assault at the unit are so pervasive that women drivers carry knives and tasers to protect themselves, a jury that believes such a statement "could not conclude that CRST has a valid antiharassment policy," he said. Rusch said he was unaware of any allegations of drivers carrying weapons in a truck, and that doing so violates corporate policy.BREEDING GROUND
The allegations fuel the perception held by many that the climate of the long-haul trucking business is a breeding ground for aberrant behavior. Team drivers are typically on the road three weeks out of a month. They spend half of each working day next to each other in a confined space, they sleep either in the cab or in the same motel, and they are not supervised.
Rusch said he is concerned about the potential consequences of pairing male and female drivers in a cramped cab for weeks at a time. "Personally, I would not have a female driver with a male driver," he said. "I would not want my 29-year-old daughter with a 62-year-old man that she does not know." Rusch said, however, that federal law forbids his firm from denying a women's request to be paired with a male codriver.
Charles W. Clowdis Jr., managing director, transportation, at IHS Economics, a research and consulting firm, said that in 1999 the American Trucking Associations (ATA) asked him to assemble a team of midlevel trucking executives to conduct a two-year survey into driver-retention trends. Drivers were asked, among other things, why they stayed with a carrier, why they left, and about the nature of their work history, Clowdis said. In an interview yesterday, Clowdis said his team, composed of veteran male truckers, was "shocked and alarmed" over the pervasive nature of sexual harassment of female drivers.
"We learned that most (incidents) go unreported and many attempted assaults were fended off by the female drivers," he said. "Unfortunately most reporting assaults or attempts to their dispatchers received little support or guidance."
A female driver's biggest fear, Clowdis said, was being accosted when walking to or from her rig. There were few incidents of assaults or attempted assaults by team codrivers, according to the report. Clowdis said he was never asked to conduct a follow-up survey.
ATA declined comment on the suit. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) said it couldn't provide any insight since it represents independent contractors and most women drivers are part of teams.
Women account for about 5 percent of the country's driver workforce. With midsize to large fleets scrambling for qualified driver talent amid a looming multiyear shortage, advocates are touting the abilities of women as a valuable and needed resource. However, it seems unlikely their cause will be helped by the new allegations swirling around CRST.
"Carriers are doing everything possible to avoid any kind of harassment against their drivers, as no one would want their employees to have a negative experience within their company environment," said Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women in Trucking Association Inc., in an e-mail. "Putting two unrelated individuals together in a truck is something that shouldn't be taken lightly, especially when the individuals are of (the) opposite gender."
It is anybody's guess as to the prevalence of sexual harassment in trucking. Truck driving is a tough, gritty business long dominated by men. Objectification of women would hardly be a news flash. To Friedman, the plaintiffs' attorney, the issue is not whether the alleged incidents of harassment and assault occurred, but what policies, if any, CRST had in place to stop them, or if by its pattern of behavior the company effectively encouraged harassment.
Friedman hinted that the story does not end with CRST. "I'm aware of other trucking companies where women drivers have made similar allegations," he said. He would not identify the carriers, nor would he comment on whether they would be used in a jury trial if one comes to pass.