The Long Beach City Council took unanimous action on February 20 to address the misclassification of port truck drivers as independent contractors, rather than as employees, by trucking companies operating within the Port of Long Beach.
The issue of port truck driver misclassification has been gaining increasing visibility in the past few years, culminating in a series of national articles by USA Today last year that documented cases in which truck drivers working at the San Pedro Bay Ports were misclassified as independent contractors and forced to make payments toward their trucks with their wages, working long hours for little take-home pay. The publication compared the practice of indebting these drivers to indentured servitude.
At the meeting, Mayor Robert Garcia, who brought the agenda item to the council, pointed out that the California Labor Commissioner has received more than 900 complaints about port truck driver misclassification and has upheld more than 500.
Garcia’s request, which was co-authored by Vice Mayor Rex Richardson and Councilmembers Lena Gonzalez, Jeannine Pearce and Al Austin, included multiple directives to address the issue. The council unanimously approved the following:
• Adding language to the council’s state and federal legislative agendas to support legislation that would improve working conditions for port truck drivers;
• Requesting the city attorney to work with the offices of the California Labor Commissioner and Attorney General “to explore options to support regulatory efforts;”
• And requesting the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners and the council’s Harbor and Tidelands Committee to hold hearings on the issue “with the goal of finding solutions that protect the Port of Long Beach’s proprietary interests.”
“We have some great both large and independent trucking firms. . . . But we also have a situation at the port where there are many trucking companies that quite frankly are taking advantage of the workers,” Garcia said. “It is clear to me and to many others that truck drivers at the Port of Long Beach are often misclassified as independent contractors, which results in them working poverty level wages and denies them the protections guaranteed by state and federal laws.”
Garcia said that legislation has been introduced to Congress to address the issue, and that he expected state legislation to be introduced within days. By approving his proposal, the council decided to support and align with such legislation.
Truck drivers, union representatives, community members and clergy representing various religions testified in support of the mayor’s proposal at the council meeting. Justice for Port Truck Drivers, an arm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, sent out a statement praising the city council the following day.
The California Trucking Association (CTA) contends that the California Department of Labor has been unfair and prejudicial in deciding misclassification claims against trucking companies. The organization filed suit in December 2016 challenging the fairness of the “Berman hearing process,” which it says the California Department of Labor’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has been using to adjudicate these misclassification complaints. Berman hearings are a type of administrative hearing used by the California Labor Commissioner to resolve wage claims.
Because the suit is ongoing, representation from the CTA said the organization could not comment. But a CTA press release announcing the lawsuit indicated that it found the Berman hearings process to be unfair. CTA CEO Shawn Yadon stated: “We believe the Labor Commission and Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, for more than four years, have been intentionally ignoring their statutory obligations to be neutral and fair and are, instead, abusing their authority in order to drive a particular agenda – to undermine the many small business trucking companies that operate under the legal independent contractor relationship with other, larger companies – by forcing predetermined results from labor hearings.”
The statement from the CTA also claimed that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and affiliated groups had sought the assistance from state and federal agencies in “cracking down” on trucking companies using independent contractors, and that those agencies then “assisted in efforts to stimulate misclassification claims by owner-drivers.”
The City of Los Angeles has also taken up the issue. In January, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed lawsuits against three trucking companies operating in the ports, arguing that they misclassified truck drivers as independent contractors and thereby avoided providing benefits and paying associated taxes.
At the council meeting, Garcia indicated that hearings on the matter by the council’s Harbor and Tidelands Committee and the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners would result in collection of information and data to be brought back to the council at a later date.