Notes From the Underground Economy

Are companies at the Port of Long Beach cheating truckers out of their rightful wages?

Notes From the Underground Economy

"Trucking makes me feel like a benefit to society," Adolfo Meyers says, "and I'm doing what I like to do. It's what I've done since I was young. Unfortunately, now, this job seems worth nothing."

A waiter pours coffee into his mug. Meyers is a troquero at the Port of Long Beach, one of the busiest in the world, and the focal point of the multibillion-dollar trucking industry in Southern California, the profession that keeps nearly every business in the region humming. He's speaking through a translator at Blackbird Cafe in Long Beach—Meyers' English is decent, but, he says, he's much more comfortable telling his story in Spanish. And telling his story is already dangerous. ("Adolfo Meyers" is a pseudonym, but his real name has appeared in previous stories about port truck drivers.)

"Everyone becomes so afraid to speak up because they can fire us," says Meyers. "I'm always afraid, but I have to speak up. It's my money; they're stealing my money."

Lining up for the day's loads
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Lining up for the day's loads
Coral Itzcalli: Advocate for troqueros
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Coral Itzcalli: Advocate for troqueros

He leases a big rig with Carson-based Shippers Transport Express, moving "short haul" loads—deliveries within Southern California. But the Mexico native isn't technically an employee of Shippers; as an independent contractor, his truck is considered a moving and rumbling small business. Meyers has to cover the truck's lease, trucking insurance, maintenance and diesel, all of which, he says, Shippers deducts from his paycheck. His pay is determined by how many hauls he can take per day from the port to the cargo's intended location and back. Stuck in traffic, or a long wait to load or unload, problems endemic to trucking? Tough.

"Now, when I stop working for a company, I don't take my truck; I take my vest. The company keeps everything," Meyers says. (As of press time, Shippers did not respond to requests for an interview.) "All the money we invested in the truck, the lease payments—things have gotten worse in the past five years. We're earning wages that we used to get 20 to 30 years ago. Right now, we're paying to work. The little money that we do earn is just barely enough to get by."

If Meyers grosses $2,300 one week, after the deductions, what he takes home is around $900 to $1,000; on that take-home amount, he still has to pay taxes at the end of the year. On top of that, he says, any repairs to the truck must be performed by a company mechanic. "If I took it to another mechanic," he says, "they would probably fire me."

Meyers is a part of the port's underground economy, or the shadow economy, terms used by Teamsters and labor activists to describe the port's dirty secret: a system of employment that designates truckers as independent contractors so the port's trucking companies can avoid paying truck costs, taxes, benefits, workers' compensation and hourly rates yet essentially ties said truckers to one company as though they are indentured servants. It's a controversy that has plagued the port's trucking industry for the past 30 years, pinning unions desperate to tap into a potential membership pool of thousands against an industry that will do anything possible to make sure this day never comes, with the independent contractors—who, by law, aren't allowed to unionize, let alone strike—stuck in the middle.

Some labor activists have even dubbed the independent-contractor system as "labor laundering." These terms, concepts and narratives conjure up a grand image of a silent workforce sneaking through the ports, unnoticed and uncared for. Trucking companies, on the other hand, tell drivers they have a great opportunity to run their own businesses if they sign up as independent contractors.

"From the very beginning, they made us believe we were our own independent companies," Meyers says. "Back then, we had our own trucks and had a little bit more control over who we worked for. But in reality, the ones who always had the control over our work, our wages, really everything, were the companies.

"The company decides what truck you're going to rent," he adds, "what time you're going to work, and what dates you're going to start. I finish working every day between 1 and 3 a.m. I start at 3 or 4 p.m. We have to be there the latest by 4 p.m. because if we don't, they might not get us a truck. But by 10 a.m., I have to wake up and call the office to see if they're going to have work for me."

And if he refuses a "bad" load—cargo hauls that pay low rates yet take a long travel time—he's not given any more work that day.

The controversy is now big enough that state and federal investigators are taking a much closer look at the port trucking industry's use of independent contractors. Plus, they've raised the amount of fines that entities will pay if they are found guilty of what they call "misclassification," or treating independent contractors as employees with none of the benefits, which labor activists say is endemic at the port.

Meyers claims that if he were his own independent company, he would be able to take his truck to any company he wanted, shop around, and set his own schedule. But that's not his current reality.

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