Jenna Smith remained remarkably calm on the day she came to work and found a company locker room display made to look like she was performing oral sex. Maybe it was because the tableaux was not a surprise, just "one more thing" in three years of harassment and abuse she suffered in her attempt to become an electrical lineman for the Eugene Water & Electric Board.
As a single mother, Smith badly needed to get through her apprenticeship so she could begin earning the $44-an-hour wage that journey-level workers make. So she kept quiet, figuring her supervisor would take down what she calls "the shrine." He saw it, but it stayed up in the locker room about three months.
And maybe, just maybe, that message from the hierarchy was received loud and clear by the all-male crews, because later Smith says she was sexually assaulted by one of her own supervisors. And afterward, Smith was told she had to work at isolated job sites — climbing poles, hauling up equipment, dealing with high-voltage electricity 80 and 100 feet up in the air — with the man who attacked her by her side.
Thirty-eight years ago, the U.S. Department of Labor passed regulations designed to gain women's access to high-wage construction jobs that had been the domain of men. Companies doing business with the federal government had to hire a minimum of 6.9 percent women. At least 20 percent of apprenticeships would go to women. Enforcement was promised — regular compliance reviews to ensure that unions and companies with government contracts recruited, trained and hired women.
The construction industry has not come close to meeting either the hiring or the apprenticeship goals. Some of the construction trades have tried. There are now women electricians and plumbers and heavy-equipment operators throughout Oregon. But national experts say that overall there are probably no more women working actual construction trade jobs — working with tools, as it is known in the industry — than there were in the 1980s.
Some of the trades have
totally refused to create environments in which women can thrive. According to state labor officials and experts in the field of construction, linemen are the worst.
"It's considered the last bastion," Smith says.
Worst for women line workers
"I can't even tell you how tenacious the line worker industry is in terms of women. You might as well be back in the 1920s," says Melinda Nichols, past apprenticeship program manager for the state of Washington's Labor & Industries, and director of the line worker apprenticeship program for public utility Seattle City Light.
Today, there is only one woman employed as a line worker in Oregon, according to industry insiders. It's hard work, not the type of labor most women, or even men, are suited for. But Seattle City Light alone employs 11 women line workers. And there are women in Oregon, such as Jenna Smith, who like working with tools, and working outdoors, and are rugged enough and brave enough to be line workers. Some have tried. But with one exception, they've all quit or moved away.
It's not as if there are enough men to fill all the construction jobs. State economists predict a need for 15,800 new construction workers in the Portland metro area by 2024. Oregon construction companies already are reporting they're having trouble finding qualified employees for eight out of 10 job openings.
In an era of unprecedented wage inequality that greatly divides along the lines of college-educated employees and service industry workers, the construction trades are among the few occupations in which men and women with no more than high school degrees and GEDs can keep pace with Portland's high cost of living.
On average, Oregon welders earn $41,000; plumbers $67,000; and electricians $72,000, with many receiving bonuses that push their total earnings into six figures. Line workers typically make $80,000 or more.
Jenna Smith was warned. During her first apprenticeship, a teacher told her she was on the wrong path, that she should opt to become an electrician rather than a lineman, because there were a number of women already working in Oregon as electricians.
But Smith knew from the start she truly wanted to be a line worker. She liked working high in the air and preferred working outdoors. Yes, she was intrigued by how electricity works, but also was drawn to the element of danger that line work provided.
Smith says she was raised by a father who, with no sons, made sure one of his daughters shared the joy he did in being around tools and guns. She wanted to test her toughness in a field where no other women would be around to offer support.
She would have plenty of opportunity to do that.
"My very first day as an apprentice, I had to sit in my truck all morning," Smith recalls. She hadn't yet been issued personal protection equipment — safety glasses, a hard hat and a vest. "My supervisor showed up and handed them toward me and pulled back. He said, 'You can have them for two kisses and a hug.'
"I replied, 'OK. You can put them right here.' And I turned around and patted my ass.
"And my foreman was standing right there, and he literally dropped on the ground holding his belly and laughing. He said, 'I told you she can take care of herself.' "
But the tests, and abuse, continued.
"One time a foreman pulled out a condom in the truck and said, 'It's my birthday. How about it?' " Smith recalls.
Another time during her apprenticeship Smith's foreman, after climbing down a tree, had a smirk on his face as he told her she needed to take his climbing gear off him.
Smith was a single mother with no child support, desperate for a living wage job that included health insurance. Her two apprenticeships were her chance at that brass ring. The foreman could wash her out, and he was waiting.
"I started the chain saw and started walking toward him and told him to hold really still," Smith says.
The effect? "It got worse," Smith says, adding that she would not consider quitting. "I wanted to be a lineman," she says. "I felt like the problem was with them and not me, and that culture needed to change."
While she was riding to jobs, a journeyman would rub up against her in the truck. Or, when they'd arrive at a job site, a journeyman would ask her to lean forward and down as the foreman approached, so it would look like she was performing oral sex on the driver.
Much of what Smith endured during both her apprenticeships is standard for apprentices — male or female — says the administrative head of Smith's union during her apprenticeship.
"Calling names and grab ass, it just needs to be toned down, and I think we've done a good job of doing that," says Lennie Ellis, business manager for IBEW Local 659. Ellis says that Smith was also at a disadvantage because of her size.
"This is a very physical trade and some people of small stature, it didn't seem to fit well with them," he says. "It takes a lot of upper body strength, and we all know women don't have the same upper body strength men do."
A second apprenticeship that would allow Smith to work as a power line worker (the first one qualified her as a power line tree trimmer) seemed to up the ante. "From the second I showed up, people were asking if I was a lesbian because my hair was short," Smith recalls. "They were angry because they were told that the company was hiring a woman in that department, and they had to take all of their calendars out of the trucks. They still have little naked lady calendars. And they were mad at me."
Eventually, Smith was sexually assaulted three times by a supervising lineman, with two other linemen present who didn't help as she fought off the attacker. She says she reported the incident up the chain of command in her union, to her apprenticeship representative and to her foreman. All three told her, "It would be better off to keep my mouth shut."
Smith didn't. She filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and a lawsuit against her employer, the Eugene Water and Electric Board. She was told to consider the impact on the family of the man she reported. BOLI investigators confirmed her allegations. The supervisor who assaulted her was fired. She refuses to feel guilty.
"I have a mouth to feed, too," Smith says.
She suffered ligament damage in her right arm from an incident that had her setting wire high up on a pole, when a journeyman gave the command to move the wire. Smith's hands were forced into a conduit. She suspects she was set up.
In 2009 she completed the requirements for her second apprenticeship and passed the journeyman's exam, but was refused her journeyman's card — her ticket to a high-wage job — by the Eugene-Springfield Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. Supervisors said she wasn't ready. She didn't believe them.
"I've already been through two apprenticeships," she recalls. "I've earned my right. I'm capable of doing the work, and yet I still struggle with acceptance in the industry. And I know a part of that is because I spoke up."
It was, says Bill Stone, who oversaw part of Smith's apprenticeship as training director for the Vancouver, Washington-based apprentice committee, known as NW Line JATC.
"This was the first woman (at EWEB), and from management it was like, let's put this cat in with all the dogs there and walk away and come back in a year and see how she's doing," Stone says.
Stone says Smith was the victim of a double standard throughout her apprenticeship. It was his job to file reports on how Smith was doing, but he got the sense that the training committee wasn't interested in an objective assessment.
"It's like they were head-hunting for her," Stone says. "They wanted to know where she was failing so they could back up what they felt about her."
Stone's assessment of Jenna Smith as a line worker? "She's a good person and she can do the work."
(EWEB and NW Line JATC officials declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Smith received her journeyman card in 2010 after a BOLI ruling in her favor. She settled her sexual harassment and discrimination suit against EWEB for $250,000.
She moved to Portland and found employment as a journey-level line worker for two years. Next she worked as a site safety coordinator for Wilson Construction in Canby. In 2012, she took a job as a NW Line JATC training coordinator, thinking she could help prepare other women for what she went through. Stone, who had hired her, left JATC in 2014 and his replacement terminated her last year for no cause, she says.
Smith has married and is currently not working outside the home. "I'm a little burned out," she says.
She feels free to wear dresses, makeup and jewelry for the first time in years. "I miss the work, but it's the culture that's running me out," she says. "It's to the point where it was changing my personality. I would have nightmares. It's hardened me."
Smith doubts her experiences have made it easier for other women to become line workers.
"I believe it's going backward," she says. "People are scared to speak up."
There is an uncertainty about Smith as she talks about the career she wanted, earned, and left. She has learned the sadness and frustration that can accompany being a pioneer. It's one thing to blaze a trail. It's another to get others to follow, or realize that what they've learned from your experiences is that the journey isn't worth the pain.
"I asked outright, one lineman, why he was so mean to me on the job," Smith recalls. "And he said, 'If you can do this job it makes my job look not so tough.'"
"My story is extreme, but a lot of women are dealing with this, and they keep quiet," Smith says. "The biggest difference is I spoke up."
• Journeyman or journey level: A fully qualified construction worker who has completed an apprenticeship and earned a certificate in a specific construction trade.
• Apprentice: Most construction workers must complete an apprenticeship that can last between two and five years in order to earn a journeyman's certificate. Apprentices are paid wages that start at about $15 an hour and can work at a variety of job sites, assisting and learning from different journey-level workers at each site.
• Since 2010 NW Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee has trained 615 line worker apprentices. Nine were women. Of those nine, two are still active line workers, including one in Washington.
Next: More Oregon line women speak out