Trucker tells his story — and is fired for it
Driver loses his job, his rig and $60,000 in lease payments
Rene Flores said he regularly broke the law as a port trucker in Southern California, hauling shipping containers up to 20 hours straight between Long Beach and Phoenix.
He kept a fake logbook tucked beneath his seat so regulators wouldn’t know he was violating federal fatigue laws for commercial truckers.
He said his company paid him so little — and charged so much for his leased truck — that he no choice.
Flores said his managers at Morgan Southern knew about his hours, but for years the trucking company looked the other way.
Then, the 36-year-old father of two talked publicly about his illegal hours and explained how his company paid him as little as 67 cents for a week of work in a USA TODAY Network story. On June 17, the day after the story was published, Morgan Southern fired him.
Flores couldn’t afford to pay off the $30,000 balance on his leased truck, so the company took that too. Flores lost $60,000 in payments he had made since 2013.
What happened to Flores is just the latest episode in a decade-long struggle that has seen hundreds of port truckers in California turned into modernday indentured servants.
As the USA TODAY Network reported last month, many of these drivers say they were forced by their bosses to sign lease-to-own truck contracts, which put them in debt to their own employers. The trucks are so expensive — up to several thousand dollars a month for payments and maintenance — that some drivers say they have no choice but to work 15 to 20 hours a day.
Drivers who refused to work or filed complaints say they faced retaliation by their employers, who could fire them or assign them lower-paying routes
“Can you imagine sacrificing four years? For all that sacrifice, I thought the truck would be mine.” Rene Flores
until they actually owed money to their company on payday.
In case after case, drivers who quit or got fired lost their trucks and everything they had paid toward owning them.
Flores said he was 10 months from the end of his lease contract when he was fired.
“Can you imagine sacrificing four years?” Flores said of the long days away from his wife and two sons, often for pay that dropped below minimum wage. “For all that sacrifice, I thought the truck would be mine.”
As part of a year-long investigation into port trucking, the USA TODAY Network interviewed Flores and reported his story. He said he worked up to 20 hours a day and used a fake logbook to avoid detection by federal regulators.
“Of course they (his employers) know,” he was quoted as saying in the original story. “But the company doesn’t care.”
Robert Milane, a spokesman and lawyer for Morgan Southern’s parent company, Roadrunner Transportation, confirmed that Flores’ public criticism, coupled with the fact that he refused to use electronic logbooks, forced the company to act.
“The fact that he stated that in his interview, we had no choice to terminate his lease,” Milane said. “He brought this on himself.”
Milane also denied Flores drove more than federal law permits. He said Morgan Southern’s electronic time logs prevent any driver from doing so.
“What he says wasn’t true,” Milane said. “I know he wasn’t running over hours.”
But Flores said he would simply switch over to paper logbooks when he knew he would be working past federal limits.
Another Morgan Southern driver, Jose Juan Rodriguez, told reporters in December that when he was still leasing his truck he, too, often drove well past the legal limit. “Many times,” he said, “we complain to the supervisor but we’re told that if we aren’t willing to work, ‘there is the door.’ ”
Since July 2015, Morgan Southern has been cited 15 times for hours violations in California, according to Department of Transportation records.
Using California’s open-records law, 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.
A USA TODAY Network analysis of the data shows Flores’ truck was in operation for at least 14 hours without the required 10hour break at least nine times from 2013 to 2015. That number is likely an undercount because one of his most frequent routes took at least 13 hours, meaning he wouldn’t pass through port gates enough to be flagged as working too long.
Other Morgan Southern trucks appear to have exceeded hours limits more than 500 times from 2013 to 2016, the data show. Three out of four of the company’s rigs went over hours at least once.
It is not clear whether these instances are violations because two drivers might divide time behind the wheel of a single truck.
Trucking experts and regulators say it can be a federal crime for company managers to knowingly send drivers on the road past federal limits.
Companies are responsible for tracking their workers’ hours, even if they’re classified as independent contractors, said Craig Weaver, a motor carrier safety specialist with the California Highway Patrol.
“They know how many hours their guys are working,” he said. “Or they should.”
Kelsey Frazier is a Teamster trustee and foreman at another California port trucking company, Pasha Hawaii. He said most companies have safety managers whose job is to track how long truckers have been on the road. Frazier said companies should know if drivers are over on their hours because they control when drivers are dispatched.
“I can promise you the company is tracking this,” he said. “Because you’re liable if you don’t.”
Rene Flores, 36, says he had no choice but to break federal fatigue laws on his long-distance hauls. One day after a USA TODAY Network report in which Flores spoke out, he was fired.
Flores and his wife, Marlenis, outside his Los Angeles home with their children, Napoleon, 11, and Jose, 13.
Rene Flores says he regularly worked up 20 hours a day on his long-haul runs from Long Beach, Calif., to Phoenix, and he saw his children during waking hours only one day a week.