Truck driver struggles with economy, environment at harbor complex

Jorge Castillo, former port trucker
Jorge Castillo, former port trucker
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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It’s been a rough year for trucking business at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Harbor officials credit a year-old Clean Trucks program with removing polluting diesel engines from the road. The trucking industry’s brought legal challenges to the agreements that enforce the program. The uncertain economy has driven container traffic down. New environmental mandates drive costs up.
We’ll hear from two people who work in this business climate. KPCC’s Molly Peterson brings us the story of one independent truck driver.

Chains clang on barriers to the parking lot that I meet Jorge in. The deal had been that I wasn't to use his last name. but he changes his mind. Jorge Castillo wears a blue diamond-quilted jacket with holes in the elbows. He’s been driving at the port for 13 years, since he was in his twenties. But he doesn’t think he’s getting anywhere – especially in this economy. "I can’t pay my rent. And so now I am thinking who’s going to pay my bills? My credit card, all this stuff. I cannot afford it," he says. His hands fill in spaces between words where other words might go. "Only bills, bills and how are we going to pay for this clean truck? We cannot afford it."

Castillo is in a parking lot near Pier A in San Pedro. His wife is job-hunting, so his 16 and 7-year-old sons are horsing around in Castillo’s tan pickup, pretending to study. I had asked to see his new clean truck, but Castillo doesn’t have it. It’s behind a fence at the company where he worked. "The registration – it’s in the company name," he says. "It doesn’t say my name, the registration. And before we have to pay the plate they take the money to pay the plates."

Castillo is a contract driver, also called an owner operator. Some guys like him lease clean trucks through the companies they drive for. A few who have savings arrange their own financing - sometimes with state grants - for trucks that cost 100-thousand dollars plus. Still other drivers use intermediary services – nonprofits that exist to promote environmentally friendly trucks. Castillo has a company lease. He says the idea that he’s independent is a lie. "The company say they are the owner for the trucks and we pay everything. We pay for the fuel. We pay for the oil service. We pay for plates. We pay for parking," he says. He runs out of fingers. "Oh man, we pay for everything. Every time when we get the check – they always take more than a thousand."

More than half what he’s taken home this year has gone to expenses: the new truck lease, the new insurance that goes with it, plus all the same old maintenance and fees. Castillo says he has tried to persuade another company to hire him as an employee driver so he can avoid the hassle. "Last week I started applying to different companies," Castillo says. "And the company – they called to get some information about me – and because I’m applying, they eliminate me and take my truck away."

He still parks the truck on company property – and he pays to do it. He can keep paying off his lease if he gets work. But a provision in his contract jacks the truck’s price up if he drives for someone else. "You cannot take those tractors to any company," Castillo shakes his head.

Lease arrangements vary widely. Port officials say some guys negotiate better deals. But Castillo also knows drivers who work ‘round the clock to make the money they need. "Some people work 20 hours a day. Some 7 days. They don’t sleep. They sleep maybe one hour in the tractor. Otherwise they know they’re going to be in trouble," he says.

Last month he visited the DMV to try and straighten out a registration issue for his truck. Castillo says he saw another man, a trucker like himself, explaining to his wife and two kids that if he paid to keep his registration current, he wouldn’t have money left for groceries that week. So Castillo approached the man and offered to help. He said to the man, "I heard you you have no money to pay for food for kids this week because you gonna buy plates for your tractor." Castillo had 200 dollars in his wallet. He kept a hundred. He gave 100 away to the other man. He still doesn't know the guy's name.

Jorge Castillo cracks a smile once during an hour-long interview - when I ask him how he met his wife. In high school, is the answer – around the age his eldest son is now. "For this Christmas going to be hard for them," he says, looking at his sons in the pickup. "They know there’s nothing I can do."

Castillo wants a job. Between the slow traffic at the port, and the cost of a cleaner truck, he’s not sure he’ll find it driving a truck. He’s taking classes to learn heating, ventilation and air conditioning repair. He expects to be out of work through the holidays.