Dennis Martinez has worked as a port truck driver for 3 years.
These truck drivers haul goods from ports to warehouses, distribution centers and rail yards so that products can get to stores. They make an average of $28,700 per year, working an average of 59 hours per week, according to a report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a labor rights advocacy group.
That's about $9.30 per hour, or about what the average fast-food worker across the country earns.
The report says wages are so low because 49,000 of the 75,000 port drivers across the country are classified as independent contractors, not employees. Labor experts say that this allows bosses to get away with not paying minimum wage, benefits or employment taxes. It also means that they don't have to comply with discrimination laws.
Experts say port truckers do classify as employees, not as independent contractors, because trucking companies have control over hours and work conditions, and the drivers' work is completely integrated into a trucking company's primary business.
"Companies strictly control when, how and where they do their jobs, and their work provides the core of the company," said Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the NELP.
Many of the port truckers can't understand how their work could be considered independent.
"When I first started, they told me I'd be my own boss, but now I know the truth," said Dennis Martinez, who has been a port truck driver with TTSI at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach for 3 years. Martinez said that his bosses tell him where he has to go, when, and what he'll get paid. And his paycheck is often cut down for deductions for fuel costs, tires and other maintenance fees.
TTSI CEO Victor LaRosa said there are quite a few independent contractors who make a substantial amount of money. He also said that the port trucking industry isn't opposed to an employee model, but that he wants to preserve the choice to still let drives be independent contractors.
This misclassification has consequences.
Carol Cauley, a port truck driver with C&K Trucking at the Port of Savannah for the last 9 years, said that because she is an independent contractor, she could make as little as $200 per week, even if she's working full-time. She also does not get health insurance, and she cannot afford to buy it on her own for her and her two sons.
"How would you feel if your son or daughter asks you to take them to the doctor, and you have to let them know you can't afford it?," she said. "That's how I feel."
C&K Trucking declined comment.
The NELP report noted that there are more than 25,000 port truck drivers who are classified as employees, with an average yearly salary of $35,000. The median pay for a tractor-trailer truck driver who is not a port trucker is about $38,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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