Media reports of trucking companies in California forcing their drivers into debt and pressuring them to work up to 20 hours a day while paying them pennies per hour has caught the attention of a group of high-profile Democratic Senators and Representatives.
Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris joined Senator Sherrod Brown in sending letters to 16 top US retailers, requiring them to state what actions they have taken to identify and rid worker abuses from their supply chain by cutting ties with port trucking companies committing labor violations.
As federal legislators, the senators have drawn a line in the sand, stating their intent to aggressively pursue all federal avenues to ensure that all port trucking companies comply with state and federal laws that protect the economic security and health and safety of workers.
While Home Depot has changed trucking companies, no longer using those named, and some retailers say they have taken steps to identify abusive companies in their supply chain, other retailers have either said they were unaware of violations or are not responsible for monitoring contractors and subcontractors in their shipping operation.
Big companies doing business in California by law must disclose what efforts they make to monitor their overseas supply chain, but are not required to apply those standards to their U.S. shipping operations. In California, state Rep. Ricardo Lara said he is drafting a bill to change California law to require companies to disclose how they audit their operations at American ports.
Port Trucking Companies Accused of Modern-Day Indentured Servitude
To finance their fleet, port trucking companies use so-called independent drivers who must sign truck lease purchase contracts requiring them to pay all expenses for the use and maintenance of their trucks from the low wages they receive.
If they fall behind with payments or refuse to work up to 20 hours a day, beyond federally mandated limits on hours of service, the company can fire them, seize the truck and all money the driver has paid toward buying it.
Retailers Enable Port Trucking Company Labor Abuse
For over a decade, major US retailers have been able to ignore signs of port trucking labor abuses because there are no laws requiring them to police their U.S. shipping vendors or the subcontractors those vendors hire.
In fact, as port drivers continue to be treated as modern-day indentured servants, retailers have paid lobbyists tens of millions of dollars to fight bills that would protect the rights of truckers.
A lobbying group of retailers, shippers and trucking companies led by retailer Target called the Coalition for Responsible Transportation has even fought port trucking-specific bills that would have enabled agencies to punish trucking companies for violations of existing labor laws.
Drivers Seek Recourse with Labor Commissioner and Courts
In July, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon called on regulators to begin working with state officials to coordinate efforts to enforce labor laws, and said they may seek to compel federal and state coordination if the agencies do not quickly take steps on their own.
Meanwhile, drivers have had some success with filing complaints against port-trucking companies with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. In nearly half of those cases, the Labor Commissioner’s office determined that the drivers, working set hours for one employer, were in fact employees, not independent contractors, and therefore owed stolen wages and penalties.
Drivers have also taken their case to court as employees in dozens of individual and class action law suits to address violations of the California Labor Code; and in over 97% of the cases, judges have sided with drivers.
State Representatives Push to Re-Introduce Clean Ports Act
While legislators pressure federal Department of Transportation regulators to better coordinate with state officials to eliminate predatory labor practices, state representatives Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), and Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) are working to resurrect the Clean Ports Act.
The Clean Ports Act, introduced by Nadler in 2010 and again in 2011, to allow ports to enforce clean truck programs, was designed to reduce toxic vehicle exhaust emissions.
If it had become law, the Clean Ports Act would have amended the Federal Motor Carrier Act to allow ports to enact and enforce clean truck programs and implement environmental programs above the federal requirements.
The motor carrier statute at that time, which was enacted as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, only allowed state and local entities to regulate trucking companies for “safety” related programs.
Nadler’s law would have given cities the authority to replace diesel trucks with clean diesel and alternative energy vehicles to reduce pollution, while not unfairly financially burdening the workers who haul cargo to and from U.S. seaports.
Since then, drivers have continued to be hired as independent contractors who are expected to replace and maintain trucks themselves, a prohibitive and unreasonable expense for the vast majority of drivers.
For more information about trucking laws and liability, visit our website at: www.portlandtruckaccidentlawyer.com.
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