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How Goldman Sachs and Other Companies Exploit Port Truck Drivers

Companies are profiting off the backs of port truck drivers, a class of exploited workers who are a crucial lynchpin in our economy.

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"While these figures represent net earnings after truck expenses, they do not include tax burdens, a fact that widens the gap between independents and employees," according to The Big Rig's authors. "Independent contractors must pay the employer's portion of Social Security, Medicare, and similar taxes, as well as their own." Drivers surveyed for their report also worked nearly 60 hours a week. "Average net earnings before FICA, income, and other taxes was $28,783 per year for contractors and $35,000 per year for employees. Minimum wage violations appear to be widespread," they wrote.

Most port truck drivers can't afford to buy the newest trucks. Instead, the late model trucks that are most common at ports are spew dirty diesel fumes — a health hazard for drivers and those who live in communities near the ports. Around 87 million people live or work near ports in the United States and are at risk of health problems from pollution, the EPA estimates. A report from the Pacific Institute in 2009 found that pollution from diesel emissions from just the port of Oakland cost the Bay Area $153 million a year because of impacts on health and quality of life.

The Los Angeles  Clean Trucks Program has sought to clean up the air and would have improved conditions for these workers in the process. Drivers sold their old polluting rigs, companies were given money to buy new, cleaner trucks, and then workers were to be hired as employees of the trucking companies. But while most of the program has been implemented, the American Trucking Associations unraveled it in court. While much of the industry's lawsuit failed, the provision that would require drivers to be hired as employees (which would also give them the right to unionize) as the means to transfer truck ownership and maintenance responsibility back to the companies was shelved two years ago on appeal. As a result, many companies have bought new trucks with public subsidies and port money, and now drivers classified as independent contractors are forced to lease the trucks back, essentially meaning they have to pay to work.

That's the situation that Mejia is in. He pays each day to lease a truck (some drivers pay as much as $2,000 a week), and every day that he shows up for work he has to sign a new contract, which means inspecting the vehicle to make sure there is no damage (otherwise he's held liable for it). Waiting for a truck and an assignment from a dispatcher can take hours (and he can spend hours more waiting in terminal lines after he has his load). But contract drivers like Mejia are paid only by the load, not by the hour. Mejia also does not know when he takes a lease in the morning and pays for his truck how much he'll be making that day. He doesn't know how many loads he'll get to deliver, or how much he'll be paid for them.

"Today, I just make like $70 — in about eight hours," says Mejia. "I have a commercial trucker's license. I'm a professional. For me it is very offensive. At the end of the week, my paycheck last friday was $1,600 gross. I ended up with a check for $720." And this is where contract drivers get screwed again —- Mejia's check is docked for leasing the truck, for the diesel that the truck eats up driving to deliver the load and return the truck, for insurance on the vehicle (where he currently works, that is 11 percent of whatever he earns). He's also charged an addition $10 each time he signs a lease for a treatment that is put in the tank to make the diesel burn cleaner. He's also charged $50 if he accidentally parks his truck in the wrong spot, or if the yard is so full he can't put the container where it is suppose to go. And he's liable for any damage that may occur to the shipping container or the truck.

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