ABOUT BLAIRE BRIODY
Blaire Briody is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Fast Company, Glamour, among others. She’s the author of the narrative nonfiction book, The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s Press/2017), which was the 2016 finalist for the Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia Journalism School and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.
She received the Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism in 2014, and she graduated from the University of California, Davis with a degree in international relations. She teaches journalism at Santa Rosa Junior College. She grew up in the small town of Mount Shasta, California, and now resides in Santa Rosa, California.
Photo by Will Christiansen
This essay was adapted from The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown, published by St. Martin’s Press. The essay appeared in Proximity magazine, and was selected by judge Ted Conover as winner of Proximity’s 2017 Narrative Journalism Prize.
When Cindy Marchello walks onto an all-male fracking site, if you don’t notice her, you’ll likely hear her voice. “What are you looking at?” she’ll yell at a male worker if he stares at her for longer than she likes, “I’m old enough to be your mom!” If that doesn’t work, she’ll ask, “What’s your wife’s name?” while hacking up a wad of saliva and spitting it at him. If the man keeps looking, she’ll threaten to throw rocks.
Marchello is a short, 56-year-old grandmother with wispy blond and gray hair, pale skin with rosy cheeks, and a curvy figure. She once visited a dusty well site surrounded by cornfields and heard a man’s voice hollering over the loudspeaker: “Woman on location, woman on location.” Everyone noticed her that time.
As the only woman on her crew, Marchello lives at a “man camp” called Rough Rider Housing on the outskirts of the 250-person town of Trenton, North Dakota. Trenton has no grocery store or library. It used to have a rickety gas station and a convenience store, but the building burned down. A handful of women live in town, but most stay locked in their homes or trailers, waiting for their husbands to return. Marchello says she likes living in this man camp better than others because she has a small kitchen here. Her first camp had shared eating quarters and a communal laundry room. Men flocked around her as she ate supper, and someone stole her underwear out of the washing machine. “It was the last time I did laundry there. I bought enough socks, underwear, everything, so I could go two weeks without doing laundry,” she said. “I never owned so many bras in my entire life.”
(Photo provided by Cindy Marchello)
In 2013, most oil field workers in North Dakota lived in man camps—barracks for oil workers that looked more like prisons or shipping container yards instead of employee housing. Though the oil boom has since slowed down considerably, at the time an estimated 25,000 people in western North Dakota lived in such camps. Marchello’s camp housed about 200 men, but she avoided anyone who wasn’t on her crew. “If you smile at them, they think you’ll spread your legs,” she said.
I had seen Marchello on a video called Lady Roughnecks in North Dakota Man Camps on CNN’s website in 2012 while researching for my first reporting trip to the state. In the video, she sat cross-legged on a twin bed. She wore jeans, and her blond hair was down to her shoulders. She waved her hands around wildly as she explained her job and what it was like to live in a man camp. “What would I say to women? You can do it! You can do whatever you want,” she said, as the camera panned to heavy trucks pulling into a shop.
I emailed her to introduce myself and she wrote back immediately. She said she’d happily meet me and couldn’t wait to talk with another woman. She explained that she sometimes went weeks without seeing another female. She missed how clean they smell, she told me later. The previous summer, she went camping in Yellowstone and visited the women’s bathroom. She didn’t want to leave because it smelled like fruity shampoo and perfume. A woman tried to move out of her way, and Marchello stopped her and said: “I’m sorry, you just smell really good.” The woman didn’t seem to understand.
Though “home” for Marchello was the town of Ogden in northern Utah, for 90 percent of the year she lived and worked in North Dakota. Although an oil boom brought Marchello here, few other women had been hired to work on oil industry crews. Nationally, 85 percent of oil industry jobs are held by men, and most women in the field work as engineers, administrators, medical personnel, or on cleaning staffs. Oil companies tout this as gender diversity in their press releases, but women hold fewer than 2 percent of the jobs beyond those positions. The gender inequality in the field has made nearby Williston—the only population hub for more than 100 miles—look like a seething all-male metropolis complete with strip clubs, greasy burger joints, Coors Light chugging contests, bar fights, and seatless Porta Potties on oil well locations. The ratio of men to women during the boom was somewhere between 6 to 1 and 30 to 1, according to varying local estimates.
Many women complained of feeling unsafe, and local statistics supported their fears. Cases of assault, harassment, domestic violence, and rape had risen dramatically since the once-sleepy region began attracting thousands of male workers. Women spoke of carrying concealed weapons when they shopped at the grocery store and avoiding the bar scene teeming with lonely males looking for female company. Rumors were rampant about where the next attack might occur—I frequently overheard women chatting about which areas to avoid or that a friend of so-and-so was attacked walking to her car.
Today, even after a wave of layoffs and bankruptcies hit the area when the price of oil plummeted in late 2014, this gender imbalance continues to pervade the oil industry. Analysts predict that under Trump’s pro-fossil fuel policies, the industry is poised to grow stronger.
Cindy Marchello; photograph courtesy of the author
Marchello began working in North Dakota’s oil field in 2010. She came out of desperation — she had gone through a difficult divorce with her husband of 28 years, lost her home to foreclosure along with thousands of other Americans, and declared bankruptcy. She lived in her car for nine months and slept on the couches of her adult children. Her first job was at Halliburton, but she later worked as a pump operator for an oil service company called C&J Energy Services, which primarily did “coil tubing”—a process that requires running bendable pipe down oil wells after they’re fracked to get the well to start producing oil.
I met Marchello one night at Rough Rider Housing in late July of 2013. When I called to arrange our interview, she told me she was on a well location and wouldn’t be home until 9 p.m. She said to come to trailer number 40. I assumed I would meet her, chat with her for 20 minutes, and be on my way.
To get to the man camp from Williston, I drove 15 miles and turned onto a gravel road near a water disposal site. There I saw 64 identical rectangular trailers, lined in two neat rows facing each other. Across the street were train tracks, and trains hauling hundreds of barrels of crude oil rumbled by every few minutes.
I pulled into the camp and saw two men standing outside their trailer smoking cigarettes. Otherwise it was quiet. Each trailer looked exactly the same, except there was a small grill outside one and a rusty patio swing behind another. Clusters of tall grass grew between the buildings. I parked my car next to two large pickup trucks, knocked on the door of trailer number 40, and Marchello answered excitedly, wearing an oversized T-shirt and sweats. The trailer was sparsely decorated but clean. It had particle-board cabinets and a small table next to the stove. On the refrigerator, a paper sign read NIGHT WORKER SLEEPING DO NOT DISTURB in large red letters. I sat down in a recliner and Marchello cozied up on the couch, crossed-legged. Then she started talking and didn’t stop for two and a half hours.
“I went to work at six o’clock in the morning and I worked until midnight and I came home and I went back at five and I worked until 9 a.m. o’clock the next morning,” she said, talking as fast as an auctioneer. “In the last three days, I have worked 67 hours. I am beyond running on empty. I slept in the truck for only about two hours. I texted my boss, ‘Unless God himself is ready to burn on the cross again you better not talk to me for two hours.’”
I tried to interject with a question, but she didn’t seem to hear.
Marchello continued, jumping to another subject: “Drillers are a subspecies. Oil field trash—they call us that for a reason, but we each have our differences. Guys who are snubbers are just weird, guys who work on the derricks have no social skills. You’d do better in a prison.
“All men and no families live here. A few women that are the housekeepers do live here. I don’t venture out. I don’t make a lot of local friends. I don’t especially like the cleaning ladies. A couple of them are quite the bar party girls. I’m not. I can’t afford to be. Because what’s she going to do? She’s going to get up and vacuum in the morning. I’m going to go drive a 100,000-pound truck. I need more sleep than that.”
She paused and looked at me. “I want you to know, I’ve been trying really hard not to cuss around you. I wear rubber bands to remind me.”
After two and a half hours, there was a knock at the door. Marchello unlocked it, and a large young man, clean-shaven with a crew cut and baggy coveralls, stood in the doorway. I later learned his name was Scott Morgan. He stepped in but didn’t sit down. He said he couldn’t stay long. He had to be back on the well location in a few hours because they were going to “haul off bottom” at 3 a.m. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he sounded tired and worried.
Marchello and he discussed their new manager and the rumors about guys putting feces on a coworker’s porch and the cops being called. Marchello told him one guy called her a cunt the other day but apologized later. They complained about one of the secretaries who worked in the office, a young woman in her 30s. Many guys on the crew flirted with her. “She’s pretty, but she doesn’t realize that she’s gained weight since high school,” said Marchello. “There’s this ongoing bet to see which button on her shirt will pop first.” She giggled.
“Hold on, hold on,” said Morgan. “How do you get she’s pretty? I haven’t seen my girlfriend in a long time, but I would need copious amounts of booze to do anything with that woman.”
“I guess I’m just saying that because she’s young and she displays her bosom, and she has very long hair,” said Marchello.
“Oh, woopdy damn do. I’d rather have one a little bit older that I don’t have to put all that effort into.”
They seemed to notice me still sitting there. Morgan explained to me that his girlfriend was 25 and attended school in Wyoming. She wanted him to settle down.
Morgan opened the fridge and looked around. “If you don’t have beer in here, I’m going back to location.”
Marchello told him that unless one of the guys put some in there, it wasn’t likely.
He headed out the door muttering that he needed a shower. He turned to me and said: “Nice meeting you. Welcome to fucked-up North Dakota.”
Colloquially called roughnecks, oil field workers in the United States typically come from blue-collar and working-class families. Jobs in the field began to decline in the mid-1980s when traditional oil reserves mostly dried up. But in 2009, all that changed. New fracking technology unlocked oil fields in North Dakota, Texas, California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, and many other states, opening reserves beyond the wildest dreams of energy experts. In less than a decade, the United States cut its oil imports in half and became the world’s largest crude oil producer, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Cindy Marchello and Scott Morgan were part of a new crop of oil workers that had flocked to the industry after the Great Recession. As blue-collar workers were laid off by the millions from plants, factories, farms, and construction sites, the oil and gas industry emerged as a shining mecca.
In North Dakota, the pristine prairie transformed almost overnight into a maze of heavy industry and oil wells, with thousands of workers relocating to the state. And unlike their predecessors, these new oil field workers had come up in a world where they watched the Twin Towers collapse, witnessed or participated in ongoing battles in the Middle East over oil, and saw the Great Recession wipe out almost any financial security they believed their families had. Many were raised on video games, Christian-based faiths, and gun culture and were die-hard patriots, believing America ought to be defended and protected at all costs. Others saw their parents feel betrayed after staying loyal to a company or participating in a union, so they had little desire to do the same. If they had work experience before coming to the oil field, it was likely in farming, construction, manufacturing, or, in many cases, the military. The boom coincided with the withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops from Iraq. If soldiers weren’t killed in the war, they figured they might as well risk their lives searching for oil in the homeland. One veteran called North Dakota’s Bakken region “the next deployment.”
When the boom first began, companies transferred workers already working in the energy industry from states such as Wyoming and Pennsylvania, where development had stalled from the drop in natural gas prices. This satisfied a tiny fraction of the workers they needed, however. It’s estimated for every rig drilled, some 120 workers are needed. In the beginning of the boom, with an average of 100 new wells drilled every month, companies needed to hire quickly, and they hired almost any able-bodied worker who walked through their door.
The average oil field worker earned $20 to $40 an hour, and many received per diem bonuses, ranging from $35 to $750 a day, just for showing up to a job. In a good year with nearly every rig drilling, overtime and bonuses pushed most workers’ incomes into the six figures. By the end of 2012, the average wage, including overtime pay, for oil field workers in North Dakota was $112,462. It was easy to see the financial appeal of the work.
There’s little, if any, training to break into the oil field industry during a boom. Most jobs ask for a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which workers can complete in three to five weeks, a clean drug test, and the ability to lift 50 pounds. Once hired, they go through a safety training class certified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a minimum of 10 hours to learn about potential job hazards and safety protocols, like the dangers of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a gas present on rig locations. For many companies, the training stops there. The new hire is placed on a crew with a supervisor and expected to learn on the job. Larger companies, such as Halliburton (“Big Red”) and Schlumberger (“Big Blue”), put new hires through slightly more rigorous training regimens, meaning a few weeks of “rig school,” before they’re tossed out onto a crew.
New hires are taught how the equipment functions and standard safety protocols, but in the oil and gas industry, the stakes are high. It’s difficult to prepare workers what to do in a situation when a $2 million piece of equipment breaks in the well or when a highly pressurized hose releases a razor-like stream of air through a pinhole leak, potentially cutting off the limbs of anyone who walks by; or when a tank full of flammable liquid explodes into a ball of flames; or when a tornado touches down a few miles from the well, as happened to one supervisor.
Those coming to the North Dakota fields also were not trained to work in extreme temperatures and weather—blizzards, hail, minus 40 or 50 degrees—temperatures so low that, if you’re not careful, your hard hat can freeze to your head. One worker said he was drinking a soda on site and set it down; 15 minutes later, he went back and saw it was slush. Fifteen minutes after that, it was frozen solid. Before I visited North Dakota in the winter, I asked a worker to describe what it was like. He looked at me, dumbfounded: “I’ll tell you what it’s like. Put your head in the freezer and punch yourself in the face.” I took his word for it. Such temperatures can also turn dangerous. “When you’re tired and cold, you’re more likely to get hurt,” said Marchello.
Most of Marchello’s 12-person crew regularly clocked 120 hours a week—with some logging an occasional 140- or 160-hour week. That meant they worked, ate, and slept while on the well site, though sleep was never a priority. Most workers took catnaps in an 18-wheeler’s sleeper cabin. “When you’re out in the field, there’s not much sleep,” said Marchello. “You get used to it.” The most intensive bursts of hard labor were when a crew arrived to a location to set up the equipment or when they disassembled everything and hauled it away.
With extreme conditions, tight living quarters, and long stretches away from their families, it was easy to see the comparison to the military. “It’s like a war out there sometimes,” said one of Marchello’s coworkers. “You look out for each other—you have to. It’s like a battlefield. You think, can we actually pull this off?”
The long hours, sleep deprivation, lack of training, extreme weather, and dangerous work were a particularly lethal mix. In 2011, North Dakota became the most dangerous state to work in, with the fatality rate nearly doubling since 2007. By 2012, the state job fatality rate was 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than five times the national average and one of the highest rates ever reported for a U.S. state.
Oil worker deaths during the boom included Brendan Wegner, 21, who was burned alive his first day on the job when an Oasis Petroleum oil well exploded in 2011. His body was found under a pile of melted steel pipes, his charred hands still gripping a ladder by which he tried to escape. His coworker Ray Hardy, 28, suffered such severe burns that he died shortly after the explosion, and another coworker, Michael Twinn, eventually committed suicide after having his burned legs amputated and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Twenty-one-year-old Dustin Bergsing died by inhaling toxic hydrocarbon vapor on a well site; 20-year-old Kyle Winters died after power tongs collided into his chest when he worked for Heller Casing; Joseph Kronberg, 52, was electrocuted on site. Between 2006 and 2014, at least 74 workers died from an accident in the Bakken—that’s approximately one death every six weeks.
Only five to eight OSHA field investigators were employed in western North Dakota between 2011 and 2015—the investigators were responsible for overseeing not only oil and gas industry safety but complaints in other fields, such as construction, covering more than 148,000 square miles in North and South Dakota. With eight investigators, it would take OSHA 126 years to inspect each workplace in North Dakota once.
Though workers’ compensation claims have more than quadrupled among the state’s oil and gas workers, many injured workers don’t file claims. Companies often reward workers for low injury rates and offer incentives to not report every accident. If a worker or their family does file, workers’ compensation does little to help with the aftereffects from a serious injury or death. In the early 1900s, workers’ compensation legislation waived workers’ right to sue in exchange for compensation—such as paying their medical bills and lost wages—if they’re injured on the job. But many states have slowly chipped away at the system by shrinking payments, fighting claims, controlling medical decisions, and stopping payments before workers fully recover. In 2014, employers in North Dakota paid the least among the states toward workers’ compensation, averaging $0.88 for every $100 they paid in wages. By contrast, North Dakota averaged $2.39 for every $100 in 1988. After filing for workers’ compensation, many workers report being ostracized by companies for having an accident on their record. “If you’re hurt out here, it will go on your record,” said one North Dakota worker. “If it happens enough times, the company will get rid of you.”
Marchello and most of her crew had experienced or witnessed some sort of serious accident during their time in North Dakota’s oil fields. A car accident while driving to location caused major damage to a worker’s back. A crane tipped over and almost killed two men. One guy blew a hole through his hand after he opened a pressurized valve in freezing temperatures and a chunk of ice shot through his palm. He was out of work for three months.
Oil workers historically have had difficulty organizing, and most states where fracking and oil drilling occur are “right to work” states, which have laws that strip unions of much of their bargaining power. The national union in the field is United Steel Workers, but it represents only those who work in oil refineries, petrochemical plants, pipeline operations, or terminals. Because most oil field workers are employed by smaller service companies and travel often, it’s difficult for them to organize strikes or improve their bargaining power. The workers I interviewed weren’t interested in union membership anyway. They blamed the downfall of American’s manufacturing industry on unions. In 2014, only about 11 percent of all wage and salary workers were in a union, down from 20 percent in 1983.
Many workers I met said they saw a limit to the number of years they could stay in the oil field. They witnessed what happened to those who stayed too long—divorce, estrangement from their children, health problems, debilitating injuries, or early death. People often said oil field years were like dog years—for every year you worked in oil, you aged about seven years. Marchello estimated that with her oil field years, she was 92. “Mine quadrupled because I was so old when I started,” she said. But pulling herself away from the high paycheck and transitioning to a slower pace of life was easier said than done.
It was a chilly spring morning in the middle of May 2010 as Marchello drove to the Halliburton yard to report for her first day of work in the oil field. She was told to show up at the Halliburton bus, a company-branded school bus that took workers out to the well location, at 4 a.m. When she stepped onto the bus, it was chaotic, with no assigned seating. She walked to the back of the bus and recognized one other guy from her training class. She waved to him and they sat next to each other. He seemed as scared as she was. The two-hour bus ride was a terrifying place for newcomers, and especially a female newcomer. People called it “the prison bus.” Guys would throw bottles at each other, and if anyone fell asleep, which happened often early in the morning or after a 12-hour workday, men would spit or write things on the faces of slumbering workers.
To her knowledge, Marchello was the only woman working as a frack hand for Halliburton’s North Dakota operation at that time. She heard about one woman before her—a petite, younger woman the guys talked about. But that woman had moved up into management and no longer worked on well locations. Most of the men on the bus were surprised to see a woman there. For Marchello, even though the oil field is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, she lived in more fear on the bus than on active well locations. “The bus was probably the most dangerous place in the oil field,” she recalled. “I learned very early on to sit in the backseat so nobody was behind me. ”
When they arrived at the well location, Marchello slid men’s red coveralls (there were no female versions) over her clothing and fastened her green hard hat over her ponytail. A supervisor told her to wait by the bus for further instructions. An hour later, she was still standing there. Finally, she caught someone’s attention and asked what she should do. He told Marchello to sit by the frack tanks, a long line of steel shipping containers, each one filled with 21,000 gallons of water. She looked over to the frack tanks and saw no one there. “And?” she said. “Is there somebody over there?” He told her someone would come by eventually. She waited there by herself, but no one came. About 10 hours later, someone told her it was time to get back on the bus.
The next day, there was a different supervisor at the well location. When the supervisor saw her in the lineup of green hats, he grumbled at one of his men, named Curtis Kenney, and told Kenney to “get that girl out of here.” Kenney gestured for Marchello to follow him. Kenney had noticed her the day before. She was hard not to notice. “Every guy there knows when there’s a woman on location. I might be gettin’ older, but I’m not gettin’ blinder,” Kenney told me later. “There was nothing Cindy could do that wouldn’t cause attention.”
For the first few weeks, Marchello followed Kenney everywhere. He taught her how to assist whoever was running the sand pump. They mixed sand, made from fine particles of quartz, with frack fluid before it went into the well. She’d stand by the belt and turn it on and turn it off when someone on the radio told her. Kenney taught her how to stay safe and what to do and where to stand when they had to disassemble the pump trucks and iron piping, move them to another location, and reassemble them. She’d haul hoses and pipes from the truck to the well and help bang iron together as they set up. She learned to operate the crane and drive the mountain mover. She kept her head down, worked hard, and tried not to draw attention to herself.
Every night after her shift, Marchello studied for hours to learn the terminology for the tools and procedures on the well. There were so many different types of valves and iron piping—dart valves, check valves, double swing valves, chiksan swivel joints. She practiced hand signals for operating the crane and studied Halliburton-specific acronyms. Hundreds of them. In an email to her daughter, she wrote: “I do math and vocabulary till I can’t see and fall asleep. I have to learn about fluid volumes and weight of fluid and tons and tons of specific math formulas! Math follows you everywhere.”
She cried herself to sleep most nights because she missed her family and felt out of place. Sometimes immediately after a shift, even though she was exhausted, she walked along Williston’s only bike trail by the river to decompress, still wearing her greasy coveralls and steel-toed boots. She often considered giving up and going home. “I will never be tough enough for this job,” she remembered texting her daughter one night after work. Her daughter replied: “Then you need to be smart so you can come home.”
Being smart meant earning enough money to pay her debts and get back on her feet. Her goal was to cover her bankruptcy bills, build credit, and maybe even buy her own home. Her first paycheck for one week of work (40 hours at $14 an hour plus 10 hours of overtime) was about $800. Back home, there were entire months when she hadn’t earned $800. This was her chance to get ahead. “When things got tough, I kept thinking about my kids and how much they needed me,” she said. “Because even though my kids are big, I’m still a single mom. I’m the only backup person they have.”
Every day, she felt herself becoming physically and emotionally stronger. It was easier to pick up tools and lift heavy machinery than when she first started. She was also learning how to manage her strengths and weaknesses. She didn’t compete with the guys on the heavier jobs but figured out how to move her body in a certain way to create more torque or haul chemicals in a more efficient way. Though she constantly felt others on the crew doubted her abilities, she was becoming more confident in herself.
After two weeks of training, she passed the trials, and Halliburton sent her to receive her commercial driver’s license, or CDL, a symbol that the company was investing in her. Not everyone made it that far. Marchello was glad to be moving forward, but she also felt exhausted. This was just the beginning.
When she returned, she was once again assigned to the same crew as Kenney. One of the supervisors of the crew was furious he’d been given a woman on his crew, which typically consisted of 18 men. Although the supervisor told Kenney to mentor Marchello, he pulled Kenney aside and whispered, “Don’t teach her anything because she’s only here for a lawsuit.” The supervisor didn’t think Marchello would last long. Kenney regularly heard guys talking behind her back about how she was a worthless addition to the crew or making inappropriate comments about her body. “Most of the guys on the crew treated her like she was . . . unwanted,” Kenney said. Sometimes the supervisor told her to shadow another guy for the day, so she did. Eventually she found out that she was being passed around as punishment. If the supervisor was mad at somebody on the crew, he’d say, “You’re on the shit list today and you get the girl.”
One of the toughest challenges for her was learning how to back up a semi truck. Marchello had passed a series of tests in CDL school but still had difficulty on site. Setting up the equipment required maneuvering the semis into tight positions. Many times her coworkers yelled and screamed at her while she was backing up, which only added to her nerves. Later she found out members of her crew had made bets about who would be the first to make her cry. They paid one guy $150 to see if he could harass her to the point of tears. “Every time you were on shift, we made bets,” a coworker told her months later. “I’m talking thousands of dollars. I’m talking about company men involved.”
She stopped him. “And who collected on the bet?”
“Nobody,” he replied. “Not one person. I knew every time they were having that conversation that no one was going to break you.”
In addition to facing direct insults, there were subtle ones as well. Even the men who were kind to her didn’t always trust her with equipment, or blamed her for things that went wrong. Other men avoided her for fear that gossip would travel back to their wives that they were spending time with a woman at work. She wondered if some men were trying to force her into quitting. One day she walked over to her assigned semi and the windshield wiper arm had been broken off. The truck had already passed inspection for her trip, so she figured it must have happened recently. When she started the engine, the radio blared at full volume and heat blasted out of the vents. She couldn’t adjust them because the knobs had been pulled off.
Marchello lasted in Halliburton’s frack department for about four months. For reasons she never entirely understood, she was transferred to Halliburton’s warehouse, where a number of other women worked. She guessed it had something to do with her supervisor, who never seemed to like her.
At the same time, she was frustrated that she’d been at Halliburton almost a year and still hadn’t received a raise. She made $14 an hour and discovered new guys with no experience were starting at $16 an hour. She asked her boss for a raise, and he said no. She remembered arguing with him: “But why are you hiring him for more than you hired me?” He replied: “I have 400 guys standing outside that door. If you don’t want this job, they do.” Other former crew members told her that the only way to make more money was to transfer companies. So when a position opened up at a coil tubing company for a nitrogen pump operator, she applied. She didn’t think she had a chance. “Women don’t end up in coil tubing,” said Marchello. “Coil tubing is like the Rolls-Royce of service companies because they are paid a higher wage. It’s very unusual for a new person to go into coil job,” she explained. To her surprise, she was hired. She sent in her resignation to Halliburton.
Marchello worked as a pump operator at multiple coil tubing companies over the next few years, but after five years in the oil industry, she left and returned to Utah. In 2015 Cindy Marchello sued one company, C&J Energy Services, Inc., for sex discrimination. In her complaint she said she was demoted from pump operator to a desk job because of her gender and claimed she had received $2 an hour less pay than men with the same job title. In addition, she believed her supervisors harassed her in hopes that she’d quit, with one supervisor allegedly telling her, “You will suffer a cruel, slow death at my hands. ”
Marchello hoped the lawsuit would bring attention to how women are treated in the industry, but her case received little coverage in the media. In early 2017, Marchello quietly settled her case for an undisclosed amount. Back in Utah, she has yet to find another job that pays close to what she had earned in the heyday the fracking boom. The last I heard, she had purchased a new car wash in town.
“You know,” Marchello told me before she left North Dakota, “as scary as it was to come here, it’s scary to walk away from it, too. The oil field has ruined my attitude. I would not fit in at the cheese plant. They would fire me. They would—I’m too mouthy. I’m too mouthy.”