Seeking new avenues to pressure trucking companies at the Port of Los Angeles to stop classifying their drivers as contractors, a City Council committee voted Friday to support a Southland congressswoman’s bill that would create a federal task force to investigate the issue.

Some port truckers maintain they are improperly classified as independent contractors in a scheme that deprives them of benefits and job protections while increasing their overhead costs by forcing them to lease their trucks from the companies for which they drive.

The Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution in support of HR 4144, the Port Drivers’ Bill of Rights Act of 2017. The legislation introduced by Rep Grace F. Napolitano, D-Norwalk, calls for a federal task force to investigate the lease-to-own agreements commercial truck drivers enter into with trucking companies at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The task force, within a year of its establishment, would be tasked with submitting a report to Congress with findings and recommendations for any necessary legislation or regulations.

The Los Angeles City Council earlier this month vetoed a permit for a large warehouse owned by NFI Industries, a major trucking and warehousing company, over concerns about its labor practices with its drivers.

In January, City Attorney Mike Feuer sued three Port of Los Angeles trucking companies over their practice of classifying truck drivers as independent contractors, alleging it bilked them out of fair pay and benefits while also shifting operating costs onto their shoulders. The lawsuits were brought against three subsidiaries of NFI Industries.

According to a USA Friday investigative report published in June 2017, there are around 800 companies regularly operating at the L.A. ports, and almost all of them turned to some form of a lease-to-own trucking model after California banned older trucks from entering the ports in 2008. USA Friday found that some drivers, after purchasing a truck and paying other overhead costs, can make less than minimum wage or even end up owing money to the company they are driving for because they purchase or least their vehicle from the company itself.

The issue of companies at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach classifying drivers as independent contractors has been a focal point of 16 strikes at the port in the last four years.

“Trucking and warehousing companies cut costs by misclassifying employees and independent contractors in order to avoid paying the wages and benefits required by federal, state and city law, and by cutting corners when it comes to worker safety,” Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the San Pedro area, said a recent council meeting.

Many of the companies maintain that the majority of their drivers prefer the current system. Before some of its employees went on a temporary strike earlier this month, NFI said that a recent vote by its employees to unionize had failed, and also that the number of strikers was only a small percentage of its workforce.

When some of its workers went on a several-day walkout earlier this month, NFI released a statement calling it “unfortunate that the Teamsters have elected to pursue this action despite the overwhelming rejection of union representation by the vast majority of Cal Cartage’s Wilmington warehouse workers. Even though the Teamsters have failed on several occasions to organize these warehouse workers, the Teamsters have been unwilling to accept the voice and the vote of the employees, who have the absolute right to determine whether or not to organize.”

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