Senators demand retailers crack down on port trucking operations

Trucks enter the Port of Long Beach. Three U.S. Senators have sent a letter to retailers demanding answers about the treatment of truck drivers at the ports. ( Photo: Port of Long Beach )

4 Senators send letters to retailers in response to investigative USA Today article

The USA Today investigation into port trucking operations in California set off a firestorm of controversy – ranging from how dare trucking companies take advantage of hard-working drivers to views that the article misrepresented not only port truckers, but trucking companies in general.

Just when it seemed the controversy had subsided, enter Congress. U.S. Senators including Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris sent letters to 16 national retail brands demanding they crack down on the practices detailed in the article, “Rigged,” that was published on June 16.

The investigative article talked to truck drivers in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and painted a picture of a system that is designed to take advantage of the drivers. The article covered everything from pay that at times doesn’t meet minimum wage, long waits with little or no compensation, forced violations of hours-of-service rules, and onerous lease payments for mandated newer trucks that the companies couldn’t wait to repossess the moment the driver missed a payment.

The article went on to allege that companies used the lease payments as leverage on the drivers to extract more work and keep them from leaving while also refusing to bring them on as company drivers with benefits and higher pay rates. Naturally, the trucking companies that service the ports don’t see it that way. They insist port drivers are independent contractors who do not want to become company drivers.

Regardless of who’s right, though, Congress is getting involved. Once Congress gets involved in disputes, the end game is rarely predictable.

The Senators’ letters – an example of which is posted to Scribd – demands answers from the retailers by Aug. 14. The legislators want to know whether the retailers, which include Walmart, Target and Costco, were aware of any complaints prior to publication of the USA Today story; what actions the companies have taken to rid their supply chain of worker abuses; whether the retailers will cancel contracts with port trucking companies that “require their employees to participate in abusive lease-to-own truck programs or that have violated state or federal safety standards and worker protections;” and will they publicly demand higher standards among port trucking companies?

“Port trucking companies’ brazen disregard for federal transportation safety standards and workers’ safety and rights is shameful,” the letter states. “As federal legislators, we take seriously our oversight of the enforcement of federal labor and transportation laws and will pursue aggressively all federal avenues to put an end to this rampant mistreatment of port truck drivers. As a major U.S. corporation, you also have a role to play in ensuring that you are not complicit in the mistreatment of port truck drivers and that American consumers, your customers, are not unwittingly supporting labor abuses in the United States.”

The Intermodal Association of North America (IANA) submitted an opinion article to USA Today in response to the original article, but according to Transport Topics, the paper declined to publish the letter. Transport Topics published it in its entirety last week.

“High quality, committed intermodal motor carriers and drivers transport more than 60 million shipments of international cargo every year, filling store shelves around the country with products we all consume,” IANA’s letter states. “In California alone, there are close to 2,000 intermodal trucking companies and 50,000 drivers that handle more than 50% of our country’s imports. The circumstances of specific individuals that were portrayed in the USA Today article are unfortunate and unacceptable. However, the story deliberately misleads readers with the premise that the profiled drivers’ experiences are standard operating procedures for all motor carriers who use independent owner-operators.”

IANA also addressed the alleged biased lease-payment programs.

“Trucking companies in Southern California have been impacted by stringent state air quality regulations since 2008, when Clean Truck programs were initiated. These rules, in part, required the replacement of older equipment, largely owned by independent owner-operators,” the organization said. “There were several different approaches motor carriers used to help the owner-operator community make the transition to the new equipment standards. Some motor carriers chose to offer lease-purchase arrangements to their owner-operator partners as a way to help them bridge from the older asset into owning a new, compliant truck. Had it not been for the implementation of motor carrier-sponsored financial programs such as the lease-purchase, many owner-operators would not have had the resources needed to upgrade their equipment to continue working at the ports.”

They say there are two sides to every story, and the USA Today article on port trucking has certainly borne that out. But now Congress has taken an interest, and where the fallout lands is anyone’s guess.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.