<p><strong>A new bill in California would punish retailers for working with port trucking companies that have been found in violation of labor and employement laws.</strong> <em>Photo: Port of Long Beach</em></p>

California state Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced a bill that would hold major retailers liable when trucking companies break labor laws, sparked by allegations of misconduct by some port drayage companies.

The bill is another attempt to solve the ongoing “driver misclassification” issue at the twin Southern California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Cities such as Los Angeles have been exploring ways to pressure trucking companies into compliance in the past few months, and this bill is the latest effort by state legislators. 

Drivers who are considered independent contractors, rather than employees, are not afforded the same wages, benefits, and security of full employees. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed against port trucking companies to compensate drivers for what they say is due them. The idea behind the bill is to force trucking companies into compliance by hitting them in the wallet.

“Port truckers are driving the global economy and delivering for the biggest brands, but they can barely afford to buy clothes for their families,” said Sen. Lara. “These used to be good jobs, and they can be good jobs again if retailers join us in improving labor conditions here in California and putting dignity back in the driver’s seat.”

The bill, SB 1402, would make retailers liable for hiring port trucking companies with unpaid final judgements related to labor and employment law violations. Violations can include failure to pay proper wages or benefits to drivers or imposing unlawful expenses on them. It would create a list of trucking companies that failed to pay final judgements. If retailers hire any of the companies on the list to move goods in and out of the ports, they will also be held liable for future state labor and employment law violations by these companies.

The bill is supported by the mayors representing California’s three largest ports, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

“While we have some great trucking companies working at the ports, we need to fix our system to make sure all truckers are treated fairly,” said Garcia. “We need to raise standards, and wages, in the industry while increasing efficiency to make sure our ports continue to be engines of growth.”

There is tension between trucking industry members and labor advocates in the state on whether a problem actually exists. But proponents of change, such as Sen. Lara and the advocacy group Justice for Port Truck Drivers, say drivers are being improperly classified as independent contractors when the drivers have little freedom to choose when and where to work. In some instances, drivers are locked into truck leases that effectively prevent them from working for more than one company and are so expensive that the take-home pay is minimal.

In the past few years, trucking companies that serve these Southern California ports have been hit with multiple lawsuits for this issue, tallying millions of dollars in judgements. The California Labor Commission has generally ruled in favor of drivers in these lawsuits, and the issue has received more public attention through a controversial USA Today series that highlighted the plight of some drivers who were struggling to make a living wage while illegally working long hours.

The Harbor Trucking Association, which represents many of the trucking companies servicing the ports in Southern California, has called the reports misleading, saying USA Today sensationalized the industry by cherry-picking the worst cases. And the stance from the HTA has been that trucking companies have a right choose their business model and that drivers have the right to choose their employment status. Other groups, such as the California Trucking Association, believe that enforcing this proposed rule would only exacerbate the driver shortage

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