Much of America will be engaged in a holiday gift-buying bonanza this month. And whether it’s via online order or plucking wares directly off store shelves, they have truck drivers to thank for the available goods.
“Black Friday, Cyber Monday, everything you shop for or order online is going to be brought by a truck. Many truck drivers opt to spend the holidays alone to deliver that freight and to make that little bit of extra money,” said Desiree Wood, a driver and president of REAL Women in Trucking, an organization that advocates for better work conditions for drivers. “It means you may be in some strange town you’ve never been in before, and isolated to where you can park, which is usually a truck stop where there isn’t any good food.” A lack of good food options is just the beginning of the issues truck drivers face. Many make paltry amounts of money, even as they spend long hours in a tiny space a long way from home. The median income for America’s 1.8 million truck drivers is $42,000 annually, and those in the bottom 10 percent of earners make just $27,000. It hasn’t always been this way. In the last 30 years, truck driver pay has plummeted. According to the National Transportation Institute, if wages in the industry had kept up with inflation since 1980, the average driver would be making $111,000 per year. Other estimates don’t show that dramatic of a drop, but even conservative ones calculate drivers should be making some $55,000 today.
The reason for the steep drop is a web of bad policies, but much of the problem stems from the way in which workers are compensated: By the mile, not the hour. “You might work a 14-hour day and you only drove 150-200 miles. If you only get paid for the miles, you don’t make anything,” said Wood. “The money is so unpredictable. You could get $400 one week and $65 the next week. You just don’t know.”
Drivers aren’t paid for the time they wait for their truck to be loaded or offloaded, and traffic and other road conditions, as well as safety regulations that limit the number of hours they can be on the road in a given day, cut into their mileage totals. Every minute spent without the landscape whizzing by their windows is a minute that drivers are essentially working for free.
In October, a U.S. District Court judge in Arkansas ruled that Department of Labor wage regulations require companies to pay drivers for the parts of the workday during which they are on-duty, but not driving or sleeping. Other court rulings have also reprimanded companies for not paying their drivers the full minimum wage.
The industry as a whole, though, still clings to the model in which miles are the only thing that equals money. It also relies on recruitment of new drivers to keep wages low. While articles about trucker shortages have been a mainstay of media coverage in recent years — which in theory should result in pay increases due to competition for workers — companies tend to instead churn through inexperienced drivers who accept lower pay, despite potentially severe consequences.
“Routinely, they attract new drivers, take their money [as compensation for training them], train them hardly at all, put them on the road, and then they crash or die or kill people,” explained Anne Balay, author of Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. Those who don’t leave the profession because of accidents often do so because the pay is so low, and then the cycle repeats itself.
“Basically, if you have a pulse you are going to get a job as a truck driver, and you are probably going to be able to get into some company-sponsored truck driving program,” said Wood. “But when you get out there, you realize you’re not making the money you thought you were going to make … You always have these students that are being churned through the system that make very little.”
And it’s even worse if you are a woman, LGBTQ person, or person of color, who often face harassment on the job in addition to the low pay and inadequate training. “If you take what is already a vulnerable labor structure and put these people in it, you have a fucked-up situation,” said Balay. “That sets them up for all the labor abuses you can imagine.”
Further undermining the ability of drivers to make a fair wage is that many are misclassified by their employers as independent contractors, meaning that though they work for just one company, they can be denied benefits and are responsible for many costs usually born by an employer, including the employer-paid side of the payroll tax and upkeep for their vehicles. It also means they can be abandoned at the slightest sign of adversity.
That’s what happened to Janet Steverson. She thought she was signing on for a full-time, in-house job with an Illinois shipping company, but was instead hired as an independent contractor. After she got in an accident (in which her fingers were so badly cut that one had to be amputated), she says the company severed the relationship and left her with nothing.
“I’ve lost my house, I lost everything,” she said. “I have no money, no income no nothing, and they’re also not paying my doctor’s bills.”
Steverson was labeled as a contractor even though she says everything she did was controlled by the company for which she drove. “I have to go where they tell me to go, I have to use their fuel card,” she said. “How can I be an independent contractor?”
A lawsuit involving one such misclassified driver, Dominic Oliveira, was heard by the Supreme Court in October. He is suing for back pay, and the case revolves around whether he is able to engage in a lawsuit or whether his case has to be heard in private arbitration, a venue in which businesses interests almost always win. Oliveira details instances in which he would drive 1,000 miles in a week and yet have to pay his employer at the end because of fuel costs and the costs of tools he claims the company required him to buy.
Companies have gotten very good at letting workers think that being an independent contractor will give them more control over their lives and more pay, when in reality it foists much of the business risk onto the individual worker.
“These are workers who often times only have a few years at most in the industry and they do buy it. They get in these very coercive arrangements,” said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “I’ve worked on cases in which every third payweek in which drivers worked, their pay is zero or negative … It’s not uncommon for a driver to work 50 hours and earn zero dollars.”
Why do trucking corporations get away with paying so little? In part, it’s because the government gave up regulating them nearly four decades ago, passing the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 as part of the bipartisan push that also deregulated airlines and other industries in the name of boosting business competition, and then undercut the unions that were helping to keep wages up.
“They broke up the unions and stopped regulating freight,” said Balay. “Instead of regulating companies and freight, the government started regulating the individual worker.”
All of this is occurring today under the specter of automation, with the widespread belief that within the next generation, if not sooner, most long-haul driving will be done by autonomous vehicles. When that occurs, it’s the best-paying trucking jobs that are most likely to disappear.
“All else equal, it’s going to be those better jobs that make more sense to automate from an economic perspective,” said Viscelli, because long highway routes will be easiest for robot trucks to navigate. He estimates that driverless trucks will result in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of high- and middle-wage trucking jobs, leaving mostly lower-wage jobs behind, such as those taking loads through cities and packages door to door.
This month, all of these problems will be ongoing as drivers blanket the country, ensuring that families everywhere have what they need and desire to celebrate the holidays, even if the people responsible earn very little in the process.