1. News

Trapped in a tollbooth, and targeted for harassment

In the four years that Ayanna Chisholm has worked collecting tolls out of tiny glass booths at the Holland Tunnel and elsewhere in New Jersey, there have been several constants. There are familiar commuters, malfunctioning toll arms, occasional scofflaws — and an incessant barrage of come-ons, sexual comments, lecherous stares and crude gestures from male motorists.

Some of Chisholm's colleagues say they have been subjected to drivers exposing themselves. The fusillade is especially menacing because it is inescapable, the workers confined to small hutches on the highway.

Like other women in her profession, Chisholm, who works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has learned to wear little makeup, crack her booth's window open as little as possible, and drop change into waiting hands to avoid drivers who try to stroke her palm.

"They know I can't physically go after them," said Chisholm, 26, who is also a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "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," she added.

Tollbooths staffed by workers have dwindled with the advent of cashless tolls. Of the collectors who remain in the New York area, many are women, including a growing number of part-time workers drawn by the occupation's flexible schedules.

What has not changed, according to interviews with more than 20 current toll takers, conversations with former toll collectors and union representatives, and messages posted on online message boards and social media, is the hum of harassment that underpins a workday on the road.

Yet workers said they rarely reported such exchanges to their employers for a variety of reasons, including a sense of resignation and the service-minded, grin-and-bear-it culture of tollbooth work. So though transportation agencies report few examples of harassment, workers said the dearth of complaints did not reflect reality. That their attitude of acceptance persists even when episodes rise to criminal — such as drivers exposing themselves — reflects a feeling that weathering obscene behavior is part of collecting tolls.

Toll takers said they had been plied with pickup lines, phone numbers, and gifts such as perfume, flowers and food while also being targets of stares and filthy gestures. The episodes involve male and female toll collectors, but predominate among women.

"It's something you become numb to," said Wayne Joseph, president of the Bridge and Tunnel Officers Benevolent Association, which represents many of the workers. "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."

Though many tollbooth areas have cameras, workers said they tended to be trained on cash registers inside the booths or at the backs of vehicles to record license plates, rather than at drivers.

Women account for just under half of the approximately 2,000 toll workers employed by three agencies in the New York City region, the Port Authority, the New York State Thruway Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"You're in a little cage and you're exposed to whatever comes, whether it's good, bad or nasty," said a 56-year-old woman who works for the Thruway Authority and did not want to be identified because of agency rules that forbid speaking to the news media. She said men had grabbed her hand, made comments about her body and, sometimes, flashed her. "You can always close the window," she said. "But they're still there. But you still kind of feel like somebody just kind of licked you."

Though tales of harassment are abundant on transportation worker message boards, official reports of it are rare. Of the three main agencies in the New York area that employ toll takers, only the Thruway Authority had any record of a complaint regarding sexual behavior by a customer — a single report from 2013 involving a truck driver who made "sexual advances" to the same toll collector several times. (The problem ended after a supervisor was placed near the tollbooth to watch for the driver, the authority said.)

Some in the industry said workplace attitudes encouraged just toughing it out.

In emailed statements, the three main New York-area agencies that employ toll collectors said they did not tolerate the sexual harassment of their workers.

The issue crops up on roadways outside New York. In Kansas, in 2012, after a regular customer repeatedly showed explicit pictures and exposed himself to a toll worker, the local police set up a sting operation and caught him in the act, according to news reports. In Florida, a man who repeatedly passed through a female toll taker's lane without pants on was arrested in 2008, after she called the authorities. A 2011 survey of toll workers in Korea, most of them women, found that about half had been sexually harassed; around a third of those said they had experienced a driver exposing him or herself.