Port truck­ers are trapped in jobs that leave them des­ti­tute

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Story by Brett Murphy Pho­tos by Omar Or­nelas USA TO­DAY Net­work

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.

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