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For truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it's a waiting game

More than 40 percent of U.S. imports flow through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. An army of 14,000 short-haul truck drivers are tasked with hauling that cargo from the port complex to warehouses and rail yards around Southern Calfornia. But some of those truckers say, despite their critical role at the ports, they are among the lowest paid workers there, due to ridiculously long wait times.

There are an estimated 14,000 truck drivers operating in the port complex. They collectively move, on average, 11,000 cargo-filled containers each day, according to numbers from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Their ability to make a good living depends on how they are classified - and there are haves, and have-nots.

About 20 percent of them are classified as full-time employees of trucking companies. They are paid by the hour, which includes the wait time. The rest of them, according to industry experts, are independent contractors or owner-operators. They are paid by the load. Some of those indies say they are proud to own a small business and happy to be their own boss. Others though consider themselves to be stuck in the middle - classified by their companies as “independent contractors,” when they believe they should be hourly employees with benefits and union representation. 

Regardless of which category they fall into, when they drive their trucks onto the container terminals in the ports to pick up a load, they usually have to wait …and sometimes for many hours.

“That’s the nature of the beast: you gotta wait,” says trucker Danny Lima, an employee driver who’s waited for as much as five hours at a terminal.  “You gotta hurry up and wait.”

Several drivers described the conditions inside terminals as tough, and said they felt mistreated by dockworkers, security and other terminal staff.  

"It’s a hell working at the terminals,"  says 'Rafael', an independent driver, who asked that his last name be left out. "I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could be sitting there for three or four hours...the sun in my face …in a truck, with no services, no bathroom." He explained that truckers aren't allowed to get out of their cabs once they enter the port complex, and admitted to keeping a bottle in the cab of his truck for those times when he can't "hold it" any longer. 

Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association says he’s heard of even worse. “You’ve got drivers from Rancho Cucamonga and Moreno Valley coming in the ports for eight hours, and they’ll leave without a container. That’s not good for the industry. It’s not good for cargo movement in general,” LaBar says.

The long wait times are in-part due to changes in the shipping industry. Over the past decade, the international shipping companies have changed how they do business. Most of them no longer own and operate the ships or the trailers that the truckers use to haul cargo containers. That has created a more complicated unloading, sorting and matching process at the docks.

Bigger ships…loaded less systematically

Ten years ago, the largest container vessels that entered the ports carried 8,500 twenty-foot containers, or TEUs.  Each shipping company operated their own cargo ships. The containers inside were generally all the same, and they were loaded systematically for efficient unloading at each dock.

Now, the ships are much larger, carrying 14,000 TEUs, said Philip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles, adding that the ships are only getting bigger, and soon ships carrying 16,000 TEUs will enter the seas. The companies have begun forming alliances with one another to share these larger ships. Each company's cargo containers are different - so it takes longer for dock workers to sort and unload them. It saves the shipping companies money, but makes for longer hours for dock workers and truckers.

“That’s an inefficiency in the system that is driven by an efficiency: the move toward larger vessels,” says Thomas O’Brien of the Center for International Trade and Transportation at Cal State Long Beach. “But the impact is felt on the dock side.”

One example of how this plays out: a truck driver spends hours waiting at the docks for the container he or she has been assigned to haul, which has to be moved from the bottom of a tall stack of other containers.  

Chasing chassis

But even before waiting for a cargo container, the driver must be matched with a chassis – the trailer that the container sits on top of. That process also involves a lot of waiting, and often some hunting. Drivers have to find one that will match the cargo container that he or she has been assigned to haul.

In the past, this matching process was relatively simple because the shipping companies also owned their own chassis fleets and managed them from their shipyards.

But during the recession, the shippers got out of the chassis business, turning them over to third-party companies to lease and maintain. The transition has created scattered mix of chassis on various terminals, and ultimately, a chassis shortage at a time when bigger ships are showing up with more cargo. Truckers told KPCC it's difficult for them to know where they can find a chassis that will match the container they are assigned to haul, and often find themselves on what amounts to a wild goose chase.

“There were times, when we would have 10 to 15 guys looking for one particular chassis, and we just had to wait,” said Danny Lima, the employee truck driver. “I heard stories that there are no chassis at one certain terminal because they were all at another terminal. “ 

"I’m praying that there is going to be a chassis," says Rafael, the independent trucker. "Because I can spend an hour driving around the terminal looking for chassis." 

The Ports of L.A. and Long Beach have recently stepped in to create new systems to make it easier for truckers to find chassis. One solution is a “gray chassis pool,” that allows more chassis to be available for use at any given time. This week, the Harbor Trucking Association is launching its own chassis pool for its members, starting with 200 chassis, which truckers can reserve with a smartphone application and pick up before heading into the terminal to pick up cargo.

"Having it outside the terminal helps alleviate some of that congestion you’ll deal with in terms of what goes on in the marine terminal," says LaBar of the Harbor Trucking Association.  

Whether it's for a chassis or the right cargo load, the longer wait times at the port terminals cost money. Companies with employee-drivers are essentially paying them by the hour to wait, and the drivers are able to make fewer "turns" in a day.

The independent owner-operators, meanwhile, are also making fewer turns - sometimes only 1 turn a day - and they lose money since they're paid by the load. They say they need to make three or four turns a day to make good money. 

If they wait at the port all day and only complete one haul, their lump sum for that haul might amount to only minimum wage. Some also have to pay their own expenses, like fuel, insurance and truck repairs. After paying for those expenses, truckers say, it hard to make ends meet.

Rafael told KPCC he earns $1000 to $1200 per week, before taxes, which, he said, is more than many other drivers make, since his company pays for some expenses and some wait time. He drives cargo from the ports to places as close as Carson and as far away as Las Vegas.

In the past he worked as a chef, and as a photographer.  But ten years ago, his friends convinced him to get a commercial drivers license and start driving a truck.

"They told me I was going to make a whole bunch of money," he says with a laugh.  "I’m still waiting."