For nearly seven years, Hector Zelaya has worked for K&R Transportation as a truck driver in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The company makes clear to Zelaya that he can’t work for anyone else, and it tightly controls his daily schedule. Yet it classifies him as an independent contractor.
“The company is the only one who benefits,” Zelaya told me. “It’s my truck, but they put a GPS on it, they tell me what to do, and if I want to work for another company, they retaliate against me.”
Zelaya pays for all the diesel fuel, insurance, parking fees, and truck maintenance. In all, he said these expenses add up to about $2,600 a month. He is also not paid for the time that he waits in the long queues at the port to receive loads. Port employees, on the other hand, receive hourly pay, vacation days, paid holidays, and sick time.
Among truck drivers, Zelaya’s situation is typical, and it’s indicative of a larger industry shift toward classifying workers as independent contractors. Between 1997 to 2016, the number of independently contracted long-haul freight-truck drivers increased by more than 90 percent. But that trend may finally be ending for California’s port-truck drivers, who make up about one-third of such workers in the country.
Earlier this year, State Senator Ricardo Lara, who represents the Port of Long Beach, proposed a bill, SB 1402, that would create a public list of trucking companies that have committed labor violations and failed to pay up. Retailers who continue to use one of these trucking companies could then be held liable for any future state labor or employment violations. That puts companies like Amazon on the hook for the wage theft that’s endemic to California’s port drayage industry.
Since 2011, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office has awarded more than $46 million to port-truck drivers in cases where they were misclassified as independent contractors. But faced with financial penalties, many companies officially close down, reopen with new names, and never square their fees. This bill also tries to close this loophole by holding any successor companies financially liable for their previous violations.
“Port-trucking companies that rip off their workers and are caught in the act often go out of business then pop up under a new name to avoid paying what they owe,” Lara told me. “It’s a cycle of exploitation that is driving down wages for many of the 25,000 California drivers who haul for some of America’s biggest retailers.”