Investigation Uncovers Widespread Employee Exploitation in California’s Port Trucking Industry

semi truck at loading dockA USA TODAY Network investigation found that port trucking companies in Southern California, which transport goods for short distances from shipping ports, often violate federal employment laws by forcing drivers into debt to pay for their trucks and using that debt to trap them in their job.

In this lease-to-own model, the trucking company provides a driver with a vehicle with the intent that he or she will one day own it after paying it off over time.

To pay back their debts, drivers are often forced to operate well past the federal limits for driving a commercial vehicle and falsify records to hide any violations. If a driver is unable to work or pay off the debt, the driver is at risk of being fired and losing the truck and all of the money he or she has payed toward it.

Although drivers are forced to work up to 20 hours a day in some cases, their paychecks are depleted through wage and hour theft, as the company charges them for gas, insurance, tires, registration and the truck’s lease. Once the deductions are made, truck drivers are often left with little-to-no earnings, making it more difficult to pay for the debt their employer forced them to acquire.

Hundreds of drivers operating out of ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles have accused several trucking companies of trapping them into forced labor situations by using their debt as a means of leverage.

Lease-to-Own Traps

Trucking companies adopted the lease-to-own model in 2008 when California imposed environmental regulations on the trucking industry and required that older truck fleets be replaced to cut down on carbon emissions.

Instead of covering the estimated $2.5 billion to replace approximately 16,000 older-model trucks in Southern California, companies forced their drivers to sign lease-to-own contracts to pay for the new vehicles. If the driver refused to sign, he or she was out of a job.

Once the lease-to-own contract was signed, the driver surrendered his or her vehicle and began paying the debt to the trucking company.

Many drivers employed by the nearly 800 trucking companies operating in Los Angeles do not speak English and report they were not given time to consult an interpreter or an attorney to review the document before signing. Drivers claim that they had no choice but to sign the contract if they wanted to keep their jobs.

In 2008, a finance firm warned Port of Long Beach board members that 40 percent of drivers were likely to default on their leases. This meant many drivers would never be able to reimburse the trucking company for the vehicle they had been forced to pay for.

The arrangement also allowed trucking companies to retain control of a driver’s schedule and determine how much work the driver received. Drivers were left at the mercy of their managers, who could dismiss them at any time or prevent them from working.

Federal Law Violations

At least 1,150 port truck drivers have filed claims in civil court or with the labor commission since 2010 in response to the mistreatment they have experienced.

USA TODAY’s investigation identified more than 100 drivers who were threatened or experienced retaliation from an employer for missing work, refusing to work past federal hour limits or turning down low-paying routes. In hearings at the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, 20 drivers for Pacific 9 Transportation, Inc. testified to working up to 19 hours a day, which violates federal limitations on hours of operation for truck drivers.

In some instances, workers claimed that managers forced them to keep working by physically barring entry into company parking lots where they were required to park their trucks every night.

The Federal Motor Carriage Safety Administration (FMCSA) enforces an 11-hour maximum driving limit, and truck drivers are prohibited from driving more than 14 consecutive hours without 10 consecutive hours off duty. However, the USA TODAY Network found hundreds of thousands of instances from 2013 to 2016 where a truck was in operation for at least 14 hours without taking the required 10-hour break.

Furthermore, the California Labor Commissioner has awarded a combined $6.8 million for lost wages to 40 drivers who were misclassified as independent contractors by Pacific 9, which prevented them from receiving the benefits and protections of regular employees.

Judges have sided with drivers in more than 97 percent of employment cases, arguing that port truckers cannot legally be classified as independent contractors. The courts have ruled that these drivers are employees who are entitled to minimum wage and cannot be charged for the equipment they use.

Contact our Sacramento Employment Law Attorneys for a Free Consultation

There are many state and federal laws that protect employees from labor exploitation and wage theft. If your rights as a worker have been violated, contact the Arnold Law Firm’s employment law attorneys.

Through a free, no obligation consultation, we will review your claim to determine if you are entitled to damages and legal action. We charge a contingency fee for our services, which means we only require payment after successfully recovering compensation on your behalf.

Call (916) 777-7777 to speak with our attorneys today.