Trucker tells his story — and is fired for it

Driver loses his job, his rig and $60,000 in lease pay­ments

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Brett Mur­phy USA TO­DAY Network

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.”

OMAR ORNELAS, USA TO­DAY NETWORK

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.

OMAR ORNELAS, USA TO­DAY NETWORK

Flores and his wife, Mar­le­nis, out­side his Los An­ge­les home with their chil­dren, Napoleon, 11, and Jose, 13.

OMAR ORNELAS, THE DESERT SUN

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.

Comments

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.