The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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May 2, 2014

Independent truckers face hard road

ELIZABETH, N.J — ELIZABETH, N.J. — It’s a few minutes into a run carrying a load of scrap copper from the Port of New York and New Jersey to a waste transfer station outside Philadelphia, and Miguel Tigre reaches over the dash of hismaroon-and-yellow cab to grab a folder stuffed with the receipts that are squeezing him dry.

He reels off calculations: He gets paid $400. His truck gets 5.2 miles per gallon, so fuel for the trip costs $180. Tolls are $20. Taxes take about a quarter off the top — and then there’s insurance for the truck and any repairs, which came to $22,000 last year.

All told, that leaves him with $32,000 in take-home pay per year, which is barely enough to cover rent and food for him and his wife, who doesn’t work. Then there’s child support and car insurance. Tigre, a stocky 56-year-old with the paunch that comes from sitting for 12 hours a day, says he can’t afford health insurance. He’s diabetic and pays $100 out of pocket for regular doctor’s visits, plus $300 a month for insulin.

And retirement? Tigre laughs, harshly. “The way things are going, I’m going to die before that,” he says.

It’s the skewed economics of Tigre’s trade that prompted port truckers to go on strike in Los Angeles on Monday as part of a union-backed campaign to regain some of the pay, benefits and respect they say they’ve lost over three decades of decline.

Owning his own rig was supposed to be a crack at something better. Tigre came to the United States from Ecuador 30 years ago, started driving for one of the hundreds of small trucking companies that serve the port and, by 1993, had saved enough to buy a truck. It seemed like a fair trade. As an owner-operator working on contract, he gave up some stability in exchange for the freedom of working whenever he wanted.

But then the bargain broke down. Prices started rising, and Tigre’s pay rate didn’t keep up. Diesel used to be 87 cents a gallon; now it’s $3.99. Tolls on some roads are now more than $100 for truckers. There are anti-terrorism identity cards and stricter emissions requirements, and any traffic infraction could send his insurance through the roof.

That’s a great deal for the trucking companies. Unlike employees, owner-operators aren’t entitled to benefits such as workers compensation, Social Security contributions and unemployment insurance, or the same level of protection under safety and health regulations.

And it’s not just the trucking industry. Contractors have emerged all over the economy, from cheerleaders to construction workers. Personnel not covered by unemployment insurance made up 23.5 percent of the workforce in 2010, up from 19 percent in 2001. Companies often try to classify their workers as independent, even if they’re not, to avoid taxes and weaken unions.

But the pendulum has swung perhaps furthest, and fastest, in the nation’s ports. Since Congress deregulated the industry in the 1980s, when a unionized truck driver made today’s equivalent of $44.83 an hour, about two-thirds of the nation’s 75,000-odd port truck drivers have become independent operators.

And now, “independence” has become shorthand for earning less: Owner-operators make an average of $28,000 a year — $7,000 less than employee drivers, who are paid by the hour and typically receive more comprehensive benefits.

Tigre may soon have to sell his truck to raise money. With a million miles on it, it would barely fetch enough to cover his credit-card bills. Then, with no assets and ruined credit, he’d have to find a trucking company to work for. But the signs all around the port are for owner-operators, not employees, because trucking companies don’t want to pour money into equipment, either.

Tigre’s is an extreme case, but his experience — losing control of a relationship in which one hand now holds all the cards — is more the norm than the exception.

 

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