What would you do if your employer charged you a fee for everything you needed to work for them: your office desk, your computer, your phone line, your chair, your share of the water cooler and internet connection? What would you do if at the end of a week you were left with just one percent of your paycheck after all these had been deducted? How long would it take for you to stand up and refuse to keep paying to access the tools that allow you to do your work?
As you can see in the paycheck image above, that is the situation that truck drivers from the port trucking company, Pacific 9 Transportation, are facing. Drivers at Pac 9 move cargo to and from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. The trucks they drive are leased from the company at $125 per week ($537.50 per month). In addition to the lease, the company requires that drivers pay for the maintenance, registration and insurance payments for their trucks. The diesel necessary to move the cargo for the company is also deducted from their paychecks. As we can see, it could amount to $530 per week. The company even charged the drivers with a parking fee to park the trucks on the company premises!
After all these deductions, a long week of work can come out to only about $13 in the driver’s pocket to support himself and his family. That is 99 percent less than what he has actually earned. And we are not talking about regular eight-hour days or 40-hour work weeks — many port drivers have to work 14 to 16 hours a day. They get paid by the load, not per hour. In many instances, Pac 9 drivers are so tired from their shifts that they sleep in their trucks rather than go home.
Company owners say that drivers make good money, but they don’t tell you that they keep most of that money for themselves! The company keeps the profit, while transferring its costs.
Some might wonder, Why don’t drivers leave and work for a fairer company?
This situation is endemic to all port trucking companies. And because these drivers are all actually employees, albeit misclassified by their employers, all of the deductions described above are considered illegal under California labor law. Another important reason drivers don’t go elsewhere: They’re tied to the company through long-term truck leases. If they walk away, they lose a truck – and maybe get sued for breaking the lease agreement.
Pacific 9 drivers, aware that moving on to another company would not solve anything, decided to take action together to put an end to this situation: On June 21, 2013, 34 drivers organized to file claims with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), seeking to reclaim their illegally deducted wages. This first wave of claims was followed by another on July 18, when13 more drivers filed. The 47 drivers have filed claims amounting to more than $6,000,000.
These drivers are following in the footsteps of other drivers. More than 500 individual drivers have filed claims so far with the DLSE for wages that amount to tens of millions of dollars that have been stolen from hard-working drivers and their communities. And because companies don’t pay taxes when they misclassify drivers, our cash-strapped public coffers are also being robbed. So far this year, the DLSE has ruled on many driver claims; in every case, drivers were found to be misclassified and owed millions of dollars.
Pac 9 drivers are going one step further than the 500 earlier claimants, though, by joining together to file claims. They understand there is strength in numbers. Only when drivers come forward and hold companies accountable will the issues they face come to light and be resolved.
(Paula Winicki is a Research & Policy Analyst for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s Clean and Safe Ports Project.)