A container ship is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.
A container ship is loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to take a closer look at allegations of “wage theft” by truck drivers serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Short-haul truckers went on strike April 27 to protest their misclassification as independent contractors rather than employees, returning to work on May 1 without a resolution.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county could do more to ensure that workers are not exploited.

“We need to take an appropriate stand for fairness and justice in the workplace,” Ridley-Thomas said.

As independent contractors, drivers are not entitled to be paid minimum wage or overtime pay or to receive workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance. They are also barred from joining a union.

“Some weeks, I even owe the company to work,” Daniel Linares told the board, showing them a pay stub with gross pay of $1,345 and net earnings of $438.

Linares said he works a night shift driving goods for Pacific 9 Transportation, which contracts with retailers like Walmart, Forever 21, CVS and Family Dollar.

A representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said drivers were frequently issued “negative paychecks” because companies illegally charge for fuel, truck leases, repairs and insurance, calling the drayage companies “sweatshops on wheels.”

Weston LaBar of the Harbor Trucking Association said a small group of four to five firms had been targeted by drivers, while most drivers surveyed preferred to keep their flexible hours rather than going on the company payroll.

“Eighty to 90 percent of owner-operators prefer to remain owner- operators,” LaBar told the board, charging that many April picketers had been flown in from other ports by the Teamsters and hurt local productivity.

In addition to Pac 9, drivers struck in April against Intermodal Bridge Transport, Pacer Cartage and Harbor Rail Transport.

More than 550 claims from port drivers have been received by the state Labor Commissioner’s Office, which found in favor of drivers in at least 113 cases to date, calling for $5 million in compensation. Nearly half of such cases have been appealed by the employer, according to a report by the county’s Department of Business and Consumer Affairs.

Drivers told the board that even when companies were ordered to pay back wages, owners would sometimes deliberately bankrupt their original business and shift contracts to a newly-created company.

“Los Angeles is the wage theft capital of the country,” said Rani Narula-Woods of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

One trucking company charged with misclassification by the National Labor Relations Board reclassified its 111 drivers as employees earlier this year and recognized the Teamsters union, leading to a wage increase from $18 to $21 per hour.

Brian Stiger, director of the county’s Department of Business and Consumer Affairs, said the county has limited jurisdiction to address the complaints, but suggested some steps the board might take, including barring companies found in violation of labor laws from county contracts.

Other options include:

— educating trucking company owners about their obligations;

— serving as a referral agency for drivers who believe they have been misclassified;

— partnering with federal and state agencies to pool resources; and

— supporting pending state legislation intended to resolve the issue.

Additional analysis was requested, and a report back is expected in 60 days.

City News Service

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