Business & Economy

Port trucking firm ordered to pay millions in back wages to dozens of drivers

A truck heads into the APM Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles as the sun begins to set
A truck heads into the APM Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles as the sun begins to set
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Port truck drivers who want to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors are finishing 2015 with a victory. 

The California Labor Commissioner has ordered Carson-based Pacific 9 Transportation to pay a total of $6.9 million to 38 drivers. The drivers had claimed they were improperly classified as independent contractors, and because of that, they each lost tens of thousands of dollars in wages. They also claimed they incurred expenses for fuel and truck repairs that the company had not reimbursed. The average individual award is $182,000 per claimant. The largest individual award amount is $386,000.

 Organizers for the Teamsters Union, which has sought to organize port truck drivers for years, called the ruling "landmark"  because the Labor Commissioner's office chose to consider and decide on the drivers' complaints in such a large group.

"What's unique here is that the cases were heard back-to-back - there were 38 of them," said Julie Guttman Dickinson, an attorney who has represented individual truck drivers in similar cases. "It's efficient and effective, and it sends a message to the industry loud and clear: if you engage in the pervasive misclassification of your drivers – which the vast majority of companies at the port are doing -- you are not going to be able to get away with it." 

In a statement, the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA), which represents the industry, accused the Labor Commissioner's office of  "clear, statistically established bias," pointing out that the office had ruled in favor of claimants in 90 to 95 percent of cases. 

"The Labor Commissioner is, consciously or unconsciously, allowing itself to be manipulated by the Teamsters," said the association's Executive Director Weston LaBar in the statement. "The HTA continues to advocate for choices and freedoms. The freedom for drivers to decide whether to be an independent contractor or an employee, as well as the freedom of a company to decide what driver model is best for them." 

There are roughly 14,000 truck drivers who move cargo in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  In its ongoing effort to organize them, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has staged several strikes and other demonstrations. Pacific 9 Transportation has been frequently targeted. Helping disgruntled drivers file complaints against their companies has become another organizing tactic for the Teamsters. 

Attorney Julie Gutman Dickinson, who has also served as legal counsel to the Teamsters port campaign, disputes the claim that the Labor Commissioner is biased. "The labor commissioner is simply enforcing well-developed law," she said.  "The state courts, the federal courts, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Department of Labor have been finding that these drivers are pervasively misclassified as independent contractors when, in fact, they are employees." 

While the Harbor Trucking Association maintains that a majority of truckers would prefer to remain independent contractors, labor activists disagree, saying that the drivers would rather be employees, and thus, able to join a union.