La Opinion – October 25, 2017
Tired of wage theft, nonexistent benefits and dangerous working conditions, a group of truck drivers from California and New Jersey and union leaders of the Teamsters demanded Wednesday to Congress measures to correct “the conditions of slavery” that thousands of drivers they face daily in ports throughout the country.
In statements to La Opinión two of the truck drivers, Mexican Guillermina Velázquez of Long Beach, California, and Salvadoran Carlos Orellana of New Jersey explained that they traveled to Washington to offer testimony to lawmakers about the abuses that occur in the sector for many years and that, in their view, only “fill the pockets” of large corporations.
Guillermina Velázquez, a truck driver from Long Beach, said the work is hard and dangerous, and little is gained. “It’s hard work, that causes us to neglect our family, our home.” We came to correct the misclassification that we are ‘owner operators’, because we are not,” said Velazquez, who emigrated from Mexico City to Long Beach 26 years ago.
“Companies typically pay per move, and if they pay us $200 per move, that takes 6 to 8 hours. We end up working 12 to 18 hours, it’s not a normal day, and it’s a dangerous job, because we do up to 240 miles a day, “said Velázquez, 45.
Much of the problem is that companies employ truck drivers as subcontractors or “independent contractors” to avoid giving them benefits, sick days, pensions, legal and labor protections, as well as forcing them to rent trucks and pay insurance out of their own pocket.
As a result of the lease to own agreement, a common practice is that if a truck driver earns $ 150 a day and has to pay $ 140 for expenses associated with the truck’s daily rent-including fuel, repair, and maintenance, you only have $ 10 left as payment.
The misclassification means that the truck drivers work practically in conditions of slavery, with days of 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, with low salaries and no medical coverage.
Velázquez suffered extreme fatigue at the CMI company, where she worked for 12 years, and resigned last year. She now has a good job with the Hudd company, but wants her case to serve as a call to action. The companies, which also have lobbyists in Congress to protect their interests, get juicy contracts with department stores to transport products to the consumer or to various federal government entities, either to transport military equipment or cargo from the National Post Office.
“It is not easy or safe work: they travel long distances, sometimes under rain or snow, and with little rest,” said Orellana. “I stopped working because I started having back problems and I do not have health insurance. I’m living off my savings, I’m holding on as much as I can, if not, I will have to travel to El Salvador to take care of my health and if something serious happens to me, may God find me confessed, “said Orellana, 56.
“Truck drivers do important work in the economy, and we need to be treated as employees, not contractors,” Orellana said, noting that an average salary for truck drivers is $ 28,000 a year. A June investigation by the USA Today newspaper sounded alarms about employer abuses against port truckers, and served as a guide for a number of legislative measures.
The Office of the California Labor Commissioner has awarded compensation to more than 400 drivers from ports over $ 40 million for late payments due to labor law violations. In addition, both the California Department of Economic Development and the New Jersey Department of Labor have awarded at least 50 port drivers unemployment and disability benefits that were denied to them.
But, according to the Teamsters union, conditions of abuse continue, and that explains in part why, last June, about one hundred truckers in Los Angeles went on strike, their 15th strike since 2013.
TWO PALLIATIVE MEASURES
The truckers’ visits came on the eve when Democrats lawmakers Grace Napolitano of California and Jerrold Nadler of New York will introduce bills, which this newspaper had access to, and that establish mechanisms begin to strengthen the labor protections of truck drivers.
The first measure, by Napolitano, is entitled “The Ports Drivers’ Rights Act of 2017”, and aims to correct the growing problem of low wages and poor working conditions of truck drivers working in the ports of the country.
That measure calls for the creation of a working group of 15 experts, including trade union leaders and consumer protection groups, and lawyers specialized in financial matters, to assess the legality of rental agreements signed by truck drivers and their salary impact. The group must submit a report within one year with recommendations to reform the sector. The second, by Nadler, is called the “Clean Ports Act,” and provides regulations to improve the air quality of the 87 million Americans who live and work in port areas.
That measure calls for the introduction of regulations in port facilities to reduce environmental pollution, traffic congestion, and improvements in road safety.
LITTLE FAITH IN CONGRESS
Fred Potter, one of the vice presidents of the international transportation union, Teamsters, and director of the port division of that group, accompanied truckers on their visits to lawmakers but, he told this newspaper, he has little faith that Congress can actually correct the injustices of the sector.
Potter believes that the measures presented tomorrow “do not correct the problem, but are one of several steps necessary to get labor justice for these employees.”
For the union leader, the current scheme is a “failed business model” because it subjects truckers to “near-slavery conditions,” and the Teamsters’ priority is to organize them.
“They have nothing independent, many times these drivers end up owing to the company that hires them. Employers are clearly violating wage and hourly laws, and we want the government not only to enforce laws but to improve protections, “Potter said.