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Two weeks ago, the Tribune detailed the harassment, sexual abuse and double standard that line worker Jenna Smith was subjected to during her two apprenticeships. But Smith’s story is not an isolated bad case, according to the women who have trained to be line workers and earned journeyman certification. There is only one woman employed as a certified line worker in Oregon.


COURTESY: OREGON TRADESWOMEN, INC. - Line worker Suni Miani says she was subjected to intense harrasment during her days in Oregon. Here Miani, left, shows a middle schooler how to safely climb a utility pole.During Suni Miani’s apprenticeship in the mid-1980s there was only one bathroom in the yard, and that was reserved for men. Miani, who would go on to work as a lineman for Portland General Electric and other Portland-area companies, was given the janitor’s closet as her bathroom. Most mornings she’d arrive at the yard to find dead mice and rats hanging in her bathroom, and raw corn cobs with the kernels removed.

Each lineman had a small box to store their personal belongings during the day. “I would regularly find pictures of women in bondage in my mailbox,” recalls Miani, who is a lesbian.

“I could write a book with the stories on the stuff they did to me,” Miani says of her apprenticeship in California and early lineman years in Oregon.

Eventually Miani complained to her supervisors about the harassment, but asked them not to let her co-workers know she had complained. Ten minutes later, she says, the foreman and manager called all the men together to talk about the problem.

The result? Flat tires on her car, and notes left on the windshield. One, she recalls, said, “Why are you doing this? You’re taking food out of some guy’s family’s mouths?’ ”

Does that type of treatment still exist for women who apprentice to become line workers? “Absolutely,” Miani says. “It’s still happening every single day. ... The white male population thinks that is their domain.”

Miani worked as an Oregon lineman nearly 10 years before moving into management and moving back to Northern California.

. . . . .

Abuse of line workers isn’t limited to Oregon. Deborah Kelly may be the only female lineman in Alaska, and she says she has to be careful about what she says “because Alaska is a small state.” But during the apprenticeship she completed in 2010, Kelly says, she was groped by a lineman in her crew. And reporting the assaults didn’t work.

“Nobody would believe it,” Kelly says. “The sick part was this particular person had a daughter who was exactly my age.”

But Kelly says the physical assaults weren’t the worst part of her apprenticeship. Her biggest problem was that the journeymen she worked under would not teach her how to correctly and safely do her job.

The groping, and being forced to look at pornography? If you’re not a line worker, Kelly says, you have no idea. “That’s something that strikes everybody. It’s still so much the norm, people have a hard time believing it. What’s unusual about (Jenna Smith’s) experiences is that she fought back. Otherwise, the treatment she experienced is not out of the ordinary.”

. . . . .

During her apprenticeship as an Oregon line worker, Cristi Sawtell was up in a bucket working on a line when a journeyman on the ground cut a wire that held tension on the pole. The released wire flew free and slammed into Sawtell’s head. She says she could have been seriously injured. Nobody on the ground gave her the typical warning, she recalls.

“When you’re in that kind of environment, where they don’t want you there, you’re not valued and held in the same sense of safety as everyone else,” Sawtell says.

COURTESY: BONNEVILLE POWER ADMINISTRATION - A sexist work environment can easily become unsafe, says Cristi Sawtell, here demonstrating climbing technique to a novice at a Women in Trades Fair held last year.Sawtell apprenticed within a year of Jenna Smith and she recalls hearing from other line workers what Smith was being put through. Her own apprenticeship wasn’t nearly as hellish, she says.

When she started work as the Bonneville Power Administration’s first and only female line worker, an equipment operator told her that everybody on the job had been told she was coming and were talking about how they’d get rid of her.

“I hadn’t even got there yet,” Sawtell says with a laugh.

Sawtell says she wasn’t groped or physically assaulted. Her abuse was more subtle, but no less dangerous.

“The pursuit was to find my failure point, not to teach a new apprentice to be a good journeyman,” she says.

Eventually, according to Sawtell, she was removed from the crew to which she was assigned during her apprenticeship. “They had to take me out of there to do some evaluation to find, was it me or was it them?” she says. She remains reluctant to detail events that led up to the change, but she did receive her journeyman certification.

But Sawtell, like all but the one woman line worker in Oregon, no longer works in the field. In the construction industry, the phrase is “works with tools.” She is now a BPA administrator.

“It’s difficult to stay in the field,” she says. “It’s a constant, always having to prove yourself again.”

Sawtell is well aware that there is only one woman lineman working with tools in Oregon today. From an industry desperate for capable workers, Sawtell says, that makes no sense.

“They’re essentially turning their backs to a whole group of workers who would jump at the chance to do it,” she says. “But they’re not going to jump at the chance when they see it’s a battle to get through it.”

. . . . .

Kathryn Kennington is another Oregon lineman who no longer works with tools, and who says she had to battle through some workplace harassment. But Kennington’s story might be most instructive for the lack of abuse she suffered compared to most of her female colleagues — and why.

Today Kennington works as a dispatcher for Oregon Trail Electric co-op in LaGrande. When she applied for a line worker apprenticeship after working at Oregon Trail as a meter reader and in the company office, she stood 5 foot 3 inches and weighed 100 pounds.

“I wasn’t really sure if I could do it myself,” Kennington says.

By virtue of having worked at Oregon Trail, Kennington already had relationships with the company’s seven or eight linemen. When she told them she wanted to try the apprenticeship, they lent her tools and boots and a couple of the linemen took her out after work to show her how to climb poles and drill while up in the air.

Kennington was the only woman apprentice in her class of about a dozen. Some of them, she said, made it clear they didn’t like her there and talked disparagingly behind her back. That continued after she earned her journeyman certificate and began working as a lineman for Oregon Trail.

But nobody, Kennington says, laid hands on her or put her into dangerous situations. The worst treatment she received was the behind-her-back talk from one journeyman that eventually led her to threaten a lawsuit after initial complaints went unheeded.

“If you did anything wrong, it was totally magnified,” Kennington says. “There definitely was discrimination there, but some of the other (women) dealt with a lot worse than I did.”

The difference in her treatment, Kennington says, may have been due to a couple of factors. One, Oregon Trail had only seven or eight lineman and they all lived in LaGrande. That meant they all had to work together for an extensive period of time, and they all were likely to see one another around town.

“It’s more like a family dynamic than some of the other (utilities), where you’ve got big crews,” says Kennington, who worked nine years with tools before helping the company’s dispatch center get started in 2010.

Kennington also thinks that the fact that she started her apprenticeship at 35 made a difference. “If I’d have been 21 like some of these other gals, I probably would have been more easily pushed around. By the time I was 35, I wasn’t afraid to stand up for myself and fight back.”

Kennington recently connected with most of the other Oregon female line workers at a conference for women in construction. She heard their stories and came away aware of how different her experience had been.

“It was really disappointed to hear some of the stuff that is going on now,” she says. “What the (NW Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee) is allowing to happen shouldn’t be happening. It sounds like it’s gone backward.”


WHAT INADEQUACY?

Women hold 2.6 percent of the construction trade jobs nationally, but blaming physical inadequacy doesn't make sense, according to a 2013 report report by the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, titled “Still Excluded.”

Evidence? Fifteen percent of the military (including 7 percent of Marines) are women. Twelve percent of police officers, 43 percent of bus drivers, 36 percent of paramedics and 23 percent of farmers and ranchers are women.


IN THE MINORITY

During the past six years, the Vancouver, Wash.'s NW Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which teaches line workers from Idaho, Washington and Oregon, has trained 487 line apprentices. Nine were women. One was from Oregon. The Eugene-Springfield JATC, the only sizable line worker apprenticeship based in Oregon, has trained 38 apprentices over the past five years, none of them women.

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