‘Bonded Bondage’: Low Wages and Grueling Conditions Fuel US Truck Driver Shortage | Supply chain crisis


Au Joe’s Travel Plaza, a neon-lit rest area on California’s main interstate highway, truckers can get a brief respite from life on the road. There is a TV lounge, laundry room and a free shower if you buy at least 75 gallons of fuel. There is even a pair of massage chairs in the corner.

But drivers here are worried about the future. The supply chain crisis shaking the United States inevitably lured them in, with a driver shortage blamed for containers idling in ports and packages delayed for months.

The trucking industry’s leading trade body said America was short of about 80,000 drivers, a figure that grabbed headlines across the country.

Truckers say the problem is not a shortage of qualified drivers; there are a lot of people who have gone through the training programs and have a commercial driver’s license. The rot, they say, is much more systemic: low pay, long hours, and an industry that treats drivers like “cannon fodder,” producing new hires who inevitably quit because the work is so exhausting.

“There is no shortage of drivers; there’s a retention issue, ”said Mike Doncaster, a 30-year veteran and driver trainer who parked his big truck at Joe’s Travel Plaza overnight, before heading to Canada with another load of vegetables.

He said of the five drivers he has trained in recent years, only one has remained loyal to the industry. “It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle – and new hires don’t get enough pay for that lifestyle.

This month, the American Trucking Association said the country will need to recruit nearly a million additional drivers over the next decade to meet demands.

Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Association, said in a statement that the reasons for the latest shortage are multiple – growing demand for freight, challenges from the pandemic, early retirements and shutdowns of ‘driving schools and DMVs, to name a few. . “There was tremendous pressure on the driver pool,” he said.

But labor economists, trucking experts and the drivers themselves have described an industry where deregulation and the constant pressure to deliver goods at ever lower prices have resulted in such poor working conditions and high rates of pay. so low that they were akin to a “contract servitude”. As a result, companies that trained and recruited new drivers often had turnover rates as high as 100% within a year, they said.

Rise of the “owner-operator” regime

Trucking was once a high-paying blue-collar job, but since the industry was deregulated in 1980, pay rates have fallen dramatically, said economics professor Michael Belzer, author of the book Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation.

One of the biggest issues is that most drivers are paid by the mile, which often means that while they are waiting to load their trucks, stuck in traffic jams or during mandatory breaks, they are not making any money. , Belzer said.

“Drivers earn a piece rate that may sound attractive, but when they realize big promises aren’t 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 drive a truck and get paid $ 10 an hour for not being home for weeks? “

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

In an industry so closely tied to economic ups and downs, there is also a lot of volatility, said Todd Spencer, president of the Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent truckers. At various times over the past decade, including after the first stroke of the coronavirus, there were too many drivers on the market, he said, but the pandemic has sent people into a “shopping spree. “.

“At Lowe’s and Home Depot, all of a sudden everything they had was very valuable, because everyone was remodeling their homes,” he said. “We’re talking about an increase in merchandise imports from 30% to maybe 50%. It buried our supply chain.

This resulted in a huge recruiting effort to find new truckers. But as soon as the supply chain problems subside, Spencer believes the demand for truckers will decline.

There are still well-paying truck driver jobs with private carriers, but most of the cheaper ones are occupied by companies that are constantly recruiting to train new drivers, said Steve Viscelli, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, author. from The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.

Viscelli said the training programs offer training for recruits for free as long as they drive for the company for a year. Otherwise, new drivers are told they will have to reimburse training costs to the tune of around $ 8,000, which keeps them tied to the business, even if the pay is low for long hours on the road.

“What the industry wants is a very cheap and flexible workforce and that is what it has had for years,” said Viscelli, who called the trainees’ situation a “peonage” of debts “. “They’ve literally gone through millions of people, who decide to become truck drivers and then get burned by the industry.”

An aerial photo shows trucks entering the Port of Houston facility in La Porte, Texas.
Trucks entering the Port of Houston facility in La Porte, Texas. A driver shortage has been blamed for exacerbating the supply chain slowdown. Photograph: Tannen Maury / EPA

Some new hires end up with an even worse deal when linked to dubious “owner-operator” programs in which they are incentivized to rent trucks from their companies, Viscelli said. Such programs have come under scrutiny at companies like Uber, with drivers claiming they end up earning much less than originally promised.

A major class action lawsuit, representing up to 40,000 drivers, recently highlighted such arrangements. The drivers sued the New Prime Trucking trucking company, alleging it used interns as employees, did not pay them minimum wage and that many lost money after being encouraged to start their own. owner-operator business.

The lead claimant, Massachusetts driver Dominic Oliveira, said he was drawn into signing the papers to rent a truck – then ended up seeing his hundreds of dollars negative pay statements due to the fees deducted by the company, according to its class action lawsuit. trial.

The case went to the Supreme Court and resulted in a settlement in July, with the company paying drivers $ 28 million.

New Prime Trucking did not respond to a Guardian request for comment, but previously said the company stuck to its independent contractor model, but felt that “moving beyond this litigation was the right thing to do. things to do “.

The attractive bonus offers and recruiting bonuses advertised by trucking companies for new hires are also rarely as lucrative as they seem, said Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

One such offer, which made the rounds on social media, promised to pay truckers up to $ 14,000 a week – or $ 728,000 a year because of the trucker shortage.

But when NPR’s Planet Money revealed the real story, a company spokesperson explained that drivers would first need to own their own truck, move to Texas, and get the proper certificates to haul “frack sand.” used by the hydraulic fracturing industry. Then, the company recognized that it was not paying by the week, but by the load.

“When we hear about these hiring bonuses and fees, we don’t know of anyone who’s ever actually gotten them,” Taylor said.

One of the deadliest jobs in the country

At Joe’s Travel Plaza, truckers say one of their biggest concerns is safety on the road.

Driver Raul Herrera sits in the corner of the trucker’s lounge eating a cup of noodles and reading on his cell phone about an accident in which an inexperienced truck driver lost control of his tractor-trailer and killed four people. The driver was convicted of homicide and driving last month.

Herrera is concerned about a federal plan that will allow 18-year-olds to drive trucks as “apprentices,” while current law requires truckers to be 21. and seen as a major win for the trucking industry’s recruiting efforts. But truckers, who already have one of the country’s deadliest jobs, were horrified.

“You don’t want to put new guys on the road even though there is a shortage of truckers,” Herrera said. “It’s not safe.”

For the seasoned Doncaster trucker, many problems would be ironed out if truckers could be paid for all their time on the road with fair and consistent rates of pay. This, he said, could stop the “race to the bottom” that drives down shipping prices, often to the detriment of truckers.

But, he said, if companies don’t stop treating new drivers like they’re disposable, things won’t change.

“It doesn’t matter to them if they can only keep a driver in a truck for a year,” he said of the current outlook for the companies. “They are making money.”