These days, news about the "supply chain crisis" feels inescapable. I heard a lot on television about how the holiday season was at risk, shelves are empty and COVID-19 tests may be scarce because of a "truck driver shortage" while dozens of container ships sit without moving outside of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
As a truck driver at the ports for the last 12 years, I get it. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Like many others, I feel a sense of panic looking at long lines of trucks trying to gain entry into the ports to get goods moving off of container ships and into warehouses.
But I want you to know that the issues our supply chain is facing weren’t inevitable, and they’re certainly not because there’s a shortage of men and women willing to be truck drivers. The real shortage is a shortage of good, union jobs that fairly compensate workers and treat us with the dignity and respect we deserve.
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To understand the supply chain crisis, you need to understand my life: the life of a port truck driver.
Waiting, waiting and more waiting
Every morning, I wait to get a dispatch text, which will tell me where I need to go. My goal is to pick up a container of goods and transport it either to a company’s warehouses or to a train yard, where it will be shipped off to its final destination.
That may sound simple enough, but what most people don’t understand is everything that happens in between.
Before even arriving at the port complex, I’m often hit with miles of traffic, either from the Los Angeles rush hour or fellow truck drivers trying to do the same thing as I do. I can end up waiting hours just to drop off an empty container from a trip the day before, and when I do finally get to the port I have to wait even longer if the computer and data systems don’t match up or if a piece of equipment breaks down.
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Worst of all, most of these waiting hours go unpaid. I’m an immensely patient person – you have to be in order to be a truck driver – but constant delays are more than a mere nuisance. They’re a direct threat to my ability to turn around enough loads and make enough money at the end of the day to put food on the table for my family.
And that's if everything is going smoothly, which isn't always the case. Just take a look at the East Coast and the crucial Interstate 95. A winter storm earlier this month left cars and trucks stranded overnight, and many people ran out of gas or were without food and water.
Trucking exploiting employees
A 2017 USA TODAY investigation found that truckers today are treated like indentured servants, with trucking companies roping drivers into lease-to-own contracts with their trucks.
One of the reasons I face the threat of so much lost income is because the billion dollar corporation I work for, XPO Logistics, effectively steals our wages and infringes on our employment rights. In October, XPO settled two federal court class action cases involving with hundreds of current and former California drayage drivers (including me) for allegedly misclassifying us as independent contractors and wage theft, including not reimbursing us for necessary work expenses.
Even though XPO is paying close to $30 million to settle the cases, however, XPO is continuing to misclassify us as independent contractors in violation, in our view, of the law.
I am labeled an “independent contractor” because I own my truck, but the company controls almost every aspect of my employment, like what loads I pick up, my wages and maintaining relationships with XPO's customers.
Anyone with common sense would say I’m an employee, but by calling me an independent contractor, XPO gets away with paying me by the load and not paying me for every hour I actually work, forcing me to pay for gas and maintenance on my truck, denying me access to employer-sponsored health insurance and refusing to pay into my Social Security and unemployment insurance.
The company makes billions of dollars every year. The company works with retail giants like Amazon and Target. But they won't give me health insurance? That’s ridiculous. It’s no wonder people aren’t lining up to work as port truck drivers.
I love what I do, and I know so many other drivers feel the same way. We take pride in how essential our skills and work are. But we also deserve to be compensated fairly and treated with dignity, safety and justice at the workplace. Shipping companies should follow the law and treat us like the essential workers we know we are – and retail companies should refuse to work with companies that exploit drivers like me.
The next time you hear some CEO mouthing off about empty shelves and trucker shortages, remember that 14,000 port truck drivers are working hard for you. The CEOs are just working for themselves.
Omar Alvarez is a truck driver for XPO Logistics. Alvarez has worked out of the Port of Los Angeles for the past 12 years. He is an immigrant from El Salvador who lives with his family in Bell Gardens, California.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blame truck driver shortage on exploitative shipping companies