Port truckers are trapped in jobs that leave them destitute
Samuel Talavera Jr. did everything his bosses asked.
Most days, the trucker would drive more than 16 hours straight hauling LG dishwashers and Kumho tires to warehouses around Los Angeles, on their way to retail stores nationwide.
He rarely went home to his family. At night, he crawled into the back of his cab and slept in the company parking lot.
For all of that, he took home as little as 67 cents a week.
Then, in October 2013, the truck he leased from his employer, QTS, broke down.
When Talavera could not afford repairs, the company fired him and seized the truck — along with $78,000 he had paid toward owning it.
Talavera was a modern-day indentured servant. And there are hundreds, probably thousands, more like him still on the road, hauling containers for trucking companies that move goods for America’s most beloved retailers, from Costco to Target to Home Depot.
These port truckers — many of them poor immigrants who speak little English — are responsible for moving almost half of the nation’s container imports out of Los Angeles’ ports. They don’t deliver goods to stores. Instead they drive them short distances to warehouses and rail yards, one small step on their journey to a store near you.
A year-long investigation by the USA TODAY Network found that port trucking companies in southern California have spent the past decade forcing drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford. Companies then used that debt as leverage to extract forced labor and trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.
If a driver quit, the company seized his truck and kept everything he had paid toward owning it.
If drivers missed payments, or if they got sick or became too ex- hausted to go on, their companies fired them and kept everything. Then they turned around and leased the trucks to someone else.
Drivers who manage to hang on to their jobs sometimes end up owing money to their employers — essentially working for free. Reporters identified seven companies that have told their employees they owe money at week’s end.
The USA TODAY Network pieced together accounts from more than 300 drivers, listened to hundreds of hours of sworn labor dispute testimony and reviewed contracts that have never been seen by the public.
Using the contracts, submitted as evidence in labor complaints, and shipping manifests, reporters matched the trucking companies with the most labor violations to dozens of retail brands, including Target, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, Hasbro, J.Crew, UPS, Goodyear, Costco, Ralph Lauren and more. Among the findings:
Trucking companies force drivers to work against their will — up to 20 hours a day — by threatening to take their trucks
“We are not human. We are machines for making money for these people.” Trucker Eduardo Garcia
and keep the money they paid toward buying them. Bosses create a culture of fear by firing drivers, suspending them without pay or reassigning them the lowest-paying routes.
To keep drivers working, managers at a few companies have physically barred them from going home. More than once, Marvin Figueroa returned from a full day’s work to find the gate to the parking lot locked and a manger ordering drivers back to work. “That was how they forced me to continue working,” he testified in a 2015 labor case. Truckers at two other companies have made similar claims.
Employers charge not just for truck leases but for a host of other expenses, including hundreds of dollars a month for insurance and diesel fuel. Some charge truckers a parking fee to use the company lot. One company, Fargo Trucking, charged $2 a week for the office toilet paper and other supplies.
Drivers at many companies say they had no choice but to break federal safety laws that limit truckers to 11 hours on the road a day. Drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation testified that their managers dispatched truckers up to 20 hours a day, then wouldn’t pay them until drivers falsified inspection reports that track hours. Hundreds of California port truckers have gotten into accidents, leading to more than 20 fatalities from 2013 to 2015, according to the USA TODAY Network’s analysis of federal crash and port trade data.
Many drivers thought they were paying into their truck like a mortgage. Instead, when they lost their job, they discovered they also lost their truck, along with everything they’d paid toward it. Eddy Gonzalez took seven days off to care for his dying mother and then bury her. When he came back, his company fired him and kept the truck. For two years, Ho Lee was charged more than $1,600 a month for a truck lease. When he became ill and missed a week of work, he lost the truck and everything he’d paid.
This isn’t a case of a few bad trucking companies accused of mistreating a handful of workers.
Since 2010, at least 1,150 port truck drivers have filed claims in civil court or with the California Department of Industrial Relations’ enforcement arm, known as the labor commission.
Judges have sided with drivers in more than 97% of the cases heard, ruling time after time that port truckers in California can’t legally be classified as independent contractors. Instead, they are employees who, by law, must be paid minimum wage and can’t be charged for the equipment they use at work. Many companies have appealed the labor commission decisions to civil court and then settled without admitting guilt.
The rulings stop there. They do not address specific allegations of abuse by drivers, including whether trucking companies physically barred them from leaving work or ordered them to work past federal fatigue limits.
But allegations like those have been made in sworn testimony in hundreds of the cases, virtually all of which ended with trucking companies ordered to repay drivers for truck expenses and lost wages. The USA TODAY Network found that at least 140 trucking companies have been accused by at least one driver of shorting them of fair pay or using threats to squeeze them to work longer hours.
Prominent civil rights leader Julian Bond once called California port truckers the new black tenant farmers of the post-Civil War South. Sharecroppers from that era rented farmland to make their living and regularly fell into debt to their landlords. Widespread predatory practices made it nearly impossible for the farmers to climb out.
Through lease contracts, California’s port truckers face the same kinds of challenges in ways that experts say rarely happen in the United States today.
“I don’t know of anything even remotely like this,” said Stanford Law School Professor William Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and one of the nation’s top labor experts.
“You’re working to get yourself out of the debt. You just don’t see anything like that.”
Reporters tried to contact owners and managers at more than 30 trucking companies. Many did not respond or declined to comment.
Those willing to answer questions said they have never used truck leases as a way to mistreat drivers. Several insisted that truckers’ allegations have been manufactured as part of a union organizing campaign by the Teamsters. The union has for years helped drivers file labor complaints and lawsuits.
“I’m not going to say that there were no violations out there,” said Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association. But, he said, they were “unintentional,” the result of market pressures that threatened to bankrupt trucking companies.
Some company owners said their lease-to-own programs were a favor to truckers who might otherwise have been out of work. And there are drivers who make it through the contract to own their trucks, something that has grown more common with time and a rebounding economy. Drivers who can’t make a living aren’t working hard enough, many company executives say.
“Our owner very generously went out and purchased a fleet of clean trucks,” said Marc Koenig, a vice president at Performance Team, which has lost cases to 21 drivers at the California labor commission. “That’s what really frustrated our owner. He really reached out and helped these guys.”
California’s port truckers make it possible for the Walmarts and Amazons of the world to function. Even so, most of the two dozen retail companies contacted by the USA TODAY Network declined to comment, some saying they had never heard of the rash of labor violations at their primary ports of entry.
Only Goodyear said it took immediate action. Spokesman Keith Price said the tire giant dropped Pacific 9 in 2015, “within two weeks” of California labor commission decisions in favor of dozens of drivers.
The few others that issued statements said it was not their responsibility to police the shipping industry. Retailers don’t directly hire the truckers who move their goods at the pier. They generally hire large shipping or logistics firms that line up trucking companies through a maze of subcontractors.
“We’re not trying to wash our hands of this issue,” said John Taylor, a spokesman for LG Electronics, “but it’s frankly far afield” and “really very disconnected from LG Electronics.”
When asked about labor violations by trucking companies in Target’s supply chain, spokeswoman Erika Winkels wrote, “Target doesn’t have anything to share here.” A $2.5 BILLION CROSSROADS For decades, short-haul truckers at the nation’s ports relied on cheap clunkers to move goods to nearby warehouses and rail yards.
With little up-front investment, drivers — most of them independent contractors who owned their own trucks — could make a decent living squeezing the last miles from dilapidated big rigs that weren’t suited for the open road.
In October 2008, that changed dramatically in Southern California, home of the nation’s busiest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. State officials, fed up with deadly diesel fumes from 16,000 outdated trucks, ordered the entire fleet replaced with new, cleaner rigs.
Suddenly, this obscure but crucial collection of trucking companies faced a $2.5 billion crossroads, unlike anything experienced at other U.S. ports.
Instead of digging into their own pockets to undo the environmental mess they helped create, the companies found a way to push the cost onto individual drivers, who are paid by the number and kinds of containers they move, not by the hour.
Truckers at dozens of companies describe the same basic scene. They were handed a leaseto-own contract by their employer and given a choice: Sign immediately or be fired. Many drivers who spoke little English said managers gave them no time to seek legal advice or even an interpreter to read the contract.
It was “take it or leave it,” according to Fidel Vasquez, a driver for Total Transportation who said he couldn’t read the contract because it was in English.
Jose Juan Rodriguez owned his own truck and drove primarily for Morgan Southern, where two dozen drivers have filed claims for back pay at the California labor commission and civil court. Like many drivers, Rodriguez said he didn’t understand what he was signing but felt he had no choice.
His wife has Stage 3 breast cancer, and his adult son has severe brain damage requiring frequent doctor visits.
“Where do I sign?” Rodriguez recalled asking right away. “The only thing I had to worry about is work, because I have a family.”
Morgan Southern did not answer questions about specific drivers’ claims. But spokesman Robert Milane said the company arranged the truck leases to help its drivers get financing they couldn’t otherwise afford.
The contracts work like subleases. Knowing drivers could not qualify for their own loans or leases, trucking companies arranged to finance their fleets. Then they had drivers sign up for individual trucks.
Drivers gave their old trucks — many of which they owned outright — to their company as a down payment. And just like that, they were up to $100,000 in debt to their employer. The same guys would have had a tough time qualifying for a Hyundai days earlier.
Drivers’ names were not on the truck titles. And many contracts effectively barred drivers from using their truck to work for other companies. The companies also retained the power to decide how much work to give their drivers, leaving drivers in constant fear of upsetting managers, who can fire them for any reason.
Drivers who signed a lease watched their take-home pay plummet.
For years Talavera made an honest living driving his truck. Since 9/11, all truckers working at ports of entry must be legal residents.
A stack of weekly paychecks Talavera keeps in a drawer shows how bad it got after he signed a lease. He grossed $1,970 on June 3, 2011, but it all went back to QTS. After the lease and other truck expenses, he took home $33.
On February 10, 2012, he took home $112 after expenses. The next week, he made 67 cents.
When drivers don’t break even, paychecks can instead read like weekly invoices: Faustino Denova, negative $9.64. Germen Merino, negative $92.50. Jose Covarrubias, negative $280.
For some truckers, the debt stacked up week after week, until they borrowed against their house or from friends, used savings to pay it off or until their company fired them.
“The company didn’t care whether I took a gallon of milk to my home or not,” one driver testified in a civil court case. “The company would take everything.”
On a five-year lease, drivers could pay in for four years and 11 months. If they got sick, fell behind on the lease or were fired in the last month, they could lose everything — as if they had never paid a dime.
“The truck was never his,” one California labor commission hearing officer noted in a ruling in March 2014. “And he has nothing to show for all the time and money he spent.”
Like many drivers, Talavera, who works for a different company now, and his wife fell behind on their mortgage. They filed for bankruptcy to save their home.
James Kang, former president of the now-defunct QTS, declined to comment and then hung up on a reporter. THREATS AND RETALIATION In ways that happen in virtually no other workplace in America, port trucking companies in southern California wield enormous power over their workers.
Through interviews and a review of sworn statements, the USA TODAY Network identified more than 100 drivers who reported threats and retaliation. Managers punish drivers most often for turning down the lowestpaying routes, missing work or refusing to work past federal hour limits.
At least 24 companies have fired drivers outright under those circumstances, according to interviews and a review of court, NLRB and California labor commission records. In each case, the driver lost his truck and what he’d paid into it.
Arcadio Amaya said he refused to work 15 hours straight one night at Pacgran Inc. and was fired the next day. He lost $26,400 he had paid toward a truck.
Eddy Gonzalez said he missed a week of work to bury his dead mother. When he came back, he said, his boss at Seacon Logix fired him on the spot and kept his truck.
“He just took the keys and left,” Gonzalez testified in court.
Representatives from Pacgran and Seacon denied their drivers’ accounts.
“It’s all f - - - ing bulls - - - ,” said Edwin Merino, a former operations manager at Pacgran, which has since closed. Merino said Amaya wasn’t fired. He said he quit because was so far behind on truck payments that he made no money when he worked.
Some companies have physically barred their workers from going home at night.
Eduardo Garcia, 57, remembers pulling into the Tradelink Transport truck yard exhausted after almost 15 hours behind the wheel one night in October 2010.
He was ready to go home to his family, but as he approached the Tradelink parking lot, he said, he saw his boss at the gate again, waving drivers back to the docks and refusing to let them into the spaces where they were required to park for the night.
“If you say no,” Garcia said, “then the next day, don't come in. No work for you.
“We are not human. We are machines for making money for these people.”
Rigoberto Cea, president of Tradelink, said he’d go into the parking lot, but only to encourage drivers to keep working. “We would go out there and ask and beg,” he said in an interview.
Through interviews and court records, reporters catalogued more than 120 drivers who say they regularly worked 12 to 20 hours straight behind the wheel.
At Pacific 9, 20 drivers testified at the California labor commission that they had to work up to 19 hours a day, violating federal fatigue laws for truckers.
Federal law prohibits commercial truckers from driving more than 11 hours at a time, and they can’t work at all after 14 hours, until they have had 10 hours of rest. Government studies show that for every hour past 11 that someone drives, the chances of crashing increase exponentially.
Pacific 9 drivers said dispatchers ordered them to doctor their driving logs every Friday to hide the overtime from regulators.
“We were told to write 12 hours on the log sheet,” former driver David Figueroa testified in a 2015 labor commission case. “They said they would withhold our checks.”
The California labor commission has ruled that 40 Pacific 9 drivers were inaccurately classified as independent contractors. They were awarded a combined $6.8 million for lost wages. Judges did not rule on whether specific allegations of mistreatment actually occurred, but factored that testimony into the decision to rule them employees.
Alan Ta, the company’s chief operating officer, denied the drivers’ accounts.
“We could never have functioned if our drivers were put through that environment,” Ta said. “I mean who can physically even do that?”
But the USA TODAY Network found evidence suggesting California port truckers, including many at Pacific 9, regularly worked too many hours.
Reporters obtained a port authority database that records the exact time a truck enters or exits the gate at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. From 2013 through 2016, trucks passed through the gates 23 million times, leaving a trail of when each truck was on the road. The data shows hundreds of thousands of instances where a truck operated at least 14 hours without the required 10-hour break.
Not all of these instances are violations, because two drivers might divide time behind the wheel of a single truck. But many companies ban that practice.
Pacific 9 is one of them. At least 7,500 times over three years, Pacific 9 trucks were on the clock for more than the 14-hour maximum, the data show. One truck regularly operated through the night, more than 100 hours a week. Another went 35 hours without the proper break almost once a week for three years.
When shown the data, Ta said he couldn’t explain those circumstances and stopped responding to interview requests.
Truckers say there’s no mystery to the hours showing up in port data. It’s just them, trying to earn enough to survive.
“If you don’t drive,” trucker Gustavo Villa said, “you don’t eat.”
Some truckers ended up owing money to their employers at the end of the work week.
Samuel Talavera Jr. ends a grueling workday at 1 a.m. by parking on the side of the road where he will sleep. He works up to 20 hours a day and has earned as little as 67 cents a week.
Samuel Talavera Jr. gets some rest in the cab of his truck before preparing to hit the road again at 6 a.m., hauling goods to warehouses around Los Angeles. Like many drivers, he keeps an empty jug in the cab to avoid missing work for bathroom breaks.
When his trucking company presented Jose Juan Rodriguez, a father of three with an ailing wife, a contract in English that he didn’t understand, he knew only that he desperately needed the work. “Where do I sign?” he remembers saying.
Reyes Castellanos, 58, lost his house after his debts mounted. He continues to work long hours in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Eduardo Garcia, 57, recalls ending long days exhausted only to have to return to the road: “If you say no, then the next day, don’t come in.”
Alfredo Arambula, 76, injured his foot while exiting his truck. The company fired him and took his truck; he’s now out of work and out of money.