‘Indentured easement’: low pay and strenuous conditions fueling US truck driver shortages | Crisis in the supply chain

At Joe’s Travel Plaza, a neon-lit rest stop on California’s highway, allows truck drivers a short break from life on the road. There is a TV room, a laundry room and a free shower if you buy at least 75 liters of fuel. There are even a couple of massage chairs in the corner.

But the drivers here are worried about the future. The supply chain crisis that is raging in the USA has inevitably dragged them in, with a shortage of drivers accused of containers emptying in ports and packages being delayed for months.

The truck industry’s main trading body has said that America is short of 80,000 drivers, a figure that has made headlines around the country.

Truck drivers say the problem is not a shortage of qualified drivers; there are plenty of people who have gone through the trainings and have a commercial driver’s license. The rot, they say, is much more systemic: low pay, long working days and an industry that treats drivers like “cannon fodder”, producing new recruits who inevitably quit because the job is so strenuous.

“There is no shortage of drivers; there is a retention problem, ”said Mike Doncaster, a 30-year veteran and trainer who parked his large rig at Joe’s Travel Plaza for the night, before heading up to Canada with another load of vegetables.

He said that of the five drivers he has trained in recent years, only one got stuck in the industry. “It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle – and new employees do not get paid enough for the lifestyle. “

This month, the American Trucking Association said the nation will need to recruit nearly 1 million more drivers in the coming decade to keep pace with requirements.

Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Association, said in a statement that the reasons behind the recent shortage are innumerable – a growing demand for shipping, pandemic-related challenges, early retirement and driving school and closures of the DMV, to name a few. “There’s been a lot of pressure on the driver’s pool,” he said.

But labor economists, truck experts and the drivers themselves described an industry where deregulation and constant pressure to deliver goods at increasingly cheaper prices have resulted in such poor working conditions and such low wage rates that they corresponded to “withdrawn slavery”. As a result, companies that trained and recruited new drivers often had turnover rates as high as 100% in a year, they said.

The increase of the system with “owner-operator”.

Truck transport used to be a high-paying, professional job, but since the industry was deregulated in 1980, wage levels have dropped dramatically, says economics professor Michael Belzer, who authored the book Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation.

One of the biggest problems is that most drivers are paid per mile, which often means that while they are waiting to load their trucks, get stuck in traffic jams or on mandatory rest breaks, they do not make money, Belzer said.

“Drivers earn a piecework salary that may look attractive, but when they realize the big promises are not real, they quit,” said Belzer, who drove a truck in the 1980s but is now a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan. “If you can work in construction and get paid $ 20 an hour and be home every night, why would you drive a truck and get paid $ 10 an hour for not being home for weeks?”

Trucks carrying containers leave the EverPort terminal in the Port of Oakland, Oakland, California.
Trucks carrying containers leave the EverPort terminal in the Port of Oakland, Oakland, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

In an industry that is so closely linked to economic ups and downs, there is also a lot of volatility, says Todd Spencer, president of the owner-operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent truck drivers. At various times in the last decade, including after the coronavirus first struck, there were too many drivers in the market, he said, but the pandemic sent people on a “shopping spree”.

“At Lowe’s and Home Depot, suddenly everything they had was very valuable, because everyone was renovating their homes,” he said. “We are talking about an increase in imported goods by 30 – maybe 50%. It has buried our supply chain.”

This led to a huge recruitment effort to find new truck drivers. But as soon as the cracks in the supply chain resolve, Spencer believes that the demand for truck drivers will decrease.

There are still some decent-paying trucking jobs with private carriers, but many of the cheapest are done by companies that are constantly recruiting to train new drivers, says Steve Viscelli, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote The Big Rigg: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.

Viscelli said the training programs offer to train recruits at no cost as long as they run for the company for a year. Otherwise, the new drivers will be told that they will have to pay back training fees of about $ 8,000, which keeps them tied to the company, even if the salary is low for long hours on the road.

“What the industry wants is super-cheap, flexible labor and that’s what it has had for years,” says Viscelli, who described the situation for trainees as “debt pioneering”. “They’ve cycled through literally millions of people, who decide to become truck drivers and then get burned by the industry.”

An aerial photo shows trucks driving into the Port of Houston facility in La Porte, Texas.
Trucks driving into the harbor at Houston’s facility in La Porte, Texas. Lack of drivers has been accused of exacerbating the downturn in the supply chain. Photo: Tannen Maury / EPA

Some new employees end up with an even worse deal when they are involved in dubious “owner-operator” systems where they are tempted to rent trucks from their companies, Viscelli said. Such systems have come under scrutiny at companies like Uber, with drivers saying they will earn much less than what was originally promised.

A major class action lawsuit, representing as many as 40,000 drivers, has recently shed light on such events. Drivers sued the trucking company New Prime Trucking, claiming that it used driver trainees as employees, failed to pay them the minimum wage and that many lost money after being encouraged to start their own owner-operator companies.

The lead plaintiff, Massachusetts driver Dominic Oliveira, said he was tempted to sign papers to rent a truck – and then ended up seeing his paycheck go hundreds of dollars in the negative direction due to fees the company deducted, according to his class action lawsuit. .

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in a settlement in July, in which the company paid the drivers $ 28 million.

New Prime Trucking did not respond to a Guardian’s request for comment but has previously said that the company stands by its independent entrepreneurial model, but considered that “bypassing this lawsuit was the right thing to do”.

The attractive bonus offers and recruitment bonuses advertised by truck companies for new employees also rarely look as lucrative as they sound, says Norita Taylor from Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

One such offer, circulating on social media, promised to pay truck drivers as much as $ 14,000 a week – or $ 728,000 a year due to the lack of truck drivers.

But when NPR’s Planet Money ran down the real story, a spokesman for the company explained that drivers must first own their own truck, move to Texas and obtain the proper certificates to transport the “frac sand” used by the fracking industry. Then the company admitted that it did not actually pay per week, but of the load.

“When we hear about these bonuses and recruitment fees, we do not know of anyone who actually ever gets them,” Taylor said.

One of the deadliest jobs in the country

At Joe’s Travel Plaza, truck drivers say one of their biggest concerns is road safety.

Driver Raul Herrera sits in the corner of the truck driver’s lounge and eats a cup of noodles and reads on his mobile phone about an accident in which an inexperienced truck driver lost control of his semi-trailer and killed four people. The driver was found guilty of vehicle murder last month.

Herrera is concerned about a federal plan that will allow 18-year-olds to drive trucks as “apprentices”, while the current law requires truck drivers to be 21. The provision to put teenage truck drivers on the road was tucked into the recently signed Federal Infrastructure Bill and is seen as one great victory for recruitment efforts for the truck industry. But truck drivers, who are already working on one of the deadliest jobs in the country, were appalled.

“You do not want to put new guys on the road, even if there is a shortage of truck drivers,” said Herrera. “It’s not certain.”

For veteran truck driver Doncaster, many of the problems would be evened out if truck drivers could be paid for all their time on the road with fair and uniform pay rates. This, he said, could stop the “race to the bottom” that is driving freight prices ever cheaper, often at the expense of truck drivers.

But, he said, if companies do not stop treating newer drivers as if they were one-time drivers, things will not change.

“It does not matter to them if they can only have one driver in a truck for a year,” he said of the companies’ current prospects. “They make money.”

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