Female tollbooth workers deal with so much sexual harassment while trapped on the highway

Women put up with a lot of shit. But a new report in The New York Times shows that female tollbooth workers put up with sexual harassment every day on such a consistent basis they barely bother to report it. It’s one of the most extreme examples of how powerless women can feel when it comes to putting up with all the intrusive, disgusting things men do. I mean, highways are not nice places, if only because everyone is on the road — including creeps. And these women don’t have much support from their union either.

Maslin Nir reports that female tollbooth workers get lewd comments, have strange men giving them gifts, drivers trying to touch their hand when they take their change, and at worst, men exposing themselves in the driver’s seat. They feel that the culture of their work environment and the sheer amount of times it happens during a shift makes it almost impossible to do anything about it, and the union supposed to look out for them does too.

Wayne Joseph, president of the Bridge and Tunnel Officers Benevolent Association, a union that represents the workers, told The New York Times, “It’s something you become numb to. If the case was that everybody would make a complaint every time that somebody said something they didn’t appreciate or they found to be harassment of a sexual manner, there would be a million complaints.” He also added that some women might “welcome” the inappropriate comments and behavior.

This is the guy women would have to ask for help if they were fired for being rude to a man harassing them as he made his way through a bridge toll. Although officially the transportation authorities Sarah Maslin Nir spoke to for the story have policies for employees to report the harassment, many female employees don’t seem to think it’s even worthwhile.

The women are stuck. Comments are one thing — women put up with catcalling all the time. But exposing your genitals or trying to touch someone is criminal, and even though cameras are everywhere at toll stations, they’re more about watching the cash flow and documenting license plates, not about catching the face of the guy with his pants down in the driver’s seat.

Most of the women Maslin Nir spoke to are just resigned to the harassment. Ayanna Chisholm, a college student working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said, “They know I can’t physically go after them. This is work, and I deal with it outside of work when I’m walking in the street. To come to work and still have to deal with that, it’s troublesome. I feel degraded.”

So the women do what most women do to get through their day and come up with coping mechanisms instead. They don’t wear makeup, they crack their windows as little as possible, they drop change from far away so no one can grab their hand. One woman said she wears headphones all the time just because it’s a good way to block out all of the shit. Chisolm said she wears a loose uniform and even gained a little weight because she found the instances of harassment decreased when she put on a few pounds.

They could also lose their jobs or get in trouble for not being friendly enough, so it’s a tough line to walk. Sometimes harassment by drivers is reported, like in Kansas in 2012, when the police arrested a man for allegedly exposing himself to a tollbooth worker. In Florida, a man who made it his hobby to drive through the same tollbooth lane not wearing pants was also apprehended. But those arrests are few and far between, especially in the busy New York region.

That the problem is so systemic, that men think it’s OK to hit on a woman stuck in a booth, and that the woman feels she can’t report it, means the best female tollbooth workers can do for now is crank up the music, grin, and bear it. Something has to change.