It was just after 2 p.m. and two truck drivers were hanging out at a burger joint in Carson, hoping their phones would ring. When a call comes in, they go to work. When the phones are silent, the stress and the bills pile up.
That's the daily routine for Byron Monzon and Santiago Aguilar, who had reported for duty at 6 a.m. Wednesday to their truck yard near the Port of Los Angeles. They never know how many loads they'll haul from one day to the next, and they don't get paid for waiting. They each had one quick delivery at 7 a.m., and they might not get another before calling it quits around 8 p.m.
"We're an essential part of the economy," said Monzon, 49, one of roughly 500 truckers who have filed claims with the state alleging wage theft. "We want to be treated with a little more dignity."
You can multiply his lament 12,000 times — the approximate number of port drivers who transport goods for the first leg of their journey after leaving the docks. This is the stuff that ends up in the discount stores and big-box retailers you and I shop at because the prices can't be beat.
But discounts come at a price. Those multibillion-dollar retailers squeeze the supply chain and drive down take-home pay for drivers, warehouse workers and others, all the way to China.
Drivers tell me that after payroll deductions for everything from truck leases and parking in the company lot — and lost hours waiting for work — they often clear the equivalent of minimum wage. Sixteen-hour days are not uncommon, they say, because you have to gross about $100,000 a year to net $20,000 to $30,000. Some drivers live in their trucks so they can save on rent and be sure not to miss out on a hauling job.
Aguilar, 50, told me his wife got seriously ill last year. Her speech and vision were impaired by a tumor behind her forehead, but they had no health insurance so she could only be treated at a public hospital. Aguilar had to work fewer hours so he could help out at home, and they had to sell the house they had worked for years to buy.
I met another driver, Dennis Martinez, at his home in Willowbrook. He and his family live in a sparsely furnished piece of a two-story stucco house that has been divided into three units. Martinez, 29, pointed to a plastic patio table they use for family meals. Recently, he said, he had to borrow money from his mother to buy groceries.
Hernandez and the other drivers I spoke to have such low incomes, their children qualify for Medi-Cal. It's a ripple effect of the Wal-Mart syndrome, in which rock-bottom wages and skimpy or nonexistent benefits end up costing taxpayers.
It wasn't always this way for truck drivers. Deregulation in 1980 gave rise to more competition, but it also clobbered unions and drove down what had been middle-class wages. Over time, fewer drivers were kept on company payrolls. Instead, they were classified as independent contractors with no benefits or steady pay.
Five years go, a clean-truck mandate helped improve air quality but further clouded the financial picture for drivers, requiring them to drive expensive new trucks. Martinez, like many other drivers, entered into a lease agreement with his trucking company and thought the terms sounded pretty good. He'd have payments deducted from his check for five years, and then the truck would be his.
But he soon discovered that the toll of diesel fuel, oil changes, repairs, new tires, parking fees and insurance — on top of the truck payment — was crippling. And he says he began getting fewer jobs after voicing his complaints and speaking out during a 48-hour strike organized late last month by a local Teamsters unit.
I asked Martinez, who has some college credit and wants to be an architect, why he doesn't look for work in another industry.
"Because I want to finish this fight," he said.
But the trucking companies are geared for battle. Alex Cherin, a spokesman for several trucking outfits, said the companies are caught in the same supply-chain squeeze as drivers, and they've been hit by both a shaky economy and fierce competition from other ports. He also said that many drivers like their independent classification, and Teamsters are meddling where they're not wanted.
I don't know about that. Droves of drivers have filed claims with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, arguing that they're really employees who have been misclassified as independent contractors. And they've scored 30 straight victories.
The fight's a long way from over, with more claims, appeals and litigation expected. But in March, state Labor Commissioner Julie Su cheered a court ruling that upheld her decision in a wage theft case.
"This case highlights the critical need for labor law enforcement, particularly where misclassification cheats hardworking men and women like these port truck drivers out of the full pay to which they were entitled," Su said. "This is wage theft, and we will do everything in our power to stop it."
Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for Justice for Port Drivers, hopes to prevail but says the trucking companies aren't the worst culprits.
"You've gotta follow the money. The large retailers set the playing field and they just squeeze every last ounce out of that system," she said, from the shoe factory worker in China to the shipper and truck driver. "It makes for very high profits at the top of the chain."
A fair shake for truckers would add no more than a few pennies to the cost of a pair of sneakers, Maynard said.
A pretty good bargain, all around.