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Bills aim to help L.A. port truck drivers who claim they are exploited as contractors

Two congressional Democrats submitted bills Thursday that aim to improve working conditions for port truck drivers, who for years have accused trucking firms of wage theft.

The bills likely face a tough slog in the Republican-controlled Congress. But their authors say they are needed to help drivers, including those at the nation’s largest port complex in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The workers allege they are improperly classified as independent contractors and have to lease their rigs under unfair lease terms. The terms, they say, are so onerous that for some pay periods they make nothing and actually end up owing the trucking company money.

One of the bills, introduced by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), would establish a federal task force to look into the lease agreements. The task force, with members from labor and the trucking industry, would examine how the leases affect pay and whether they violate local, state or federal labor law. The task force would then recommend legislation to “protect the ability of truck drivers to earn a living wage.”

The second bill, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), would allow ports to set requirements for truckers that are “reasonably related to the reduction of environmental pollution, traffic congestion, the improvement of highway safety, or the efficient utilization of port facilities.”

The Teamsters union, which has supported the truckers, said that the language of the bill is important, because it would allow ports to mandate that truckers be employees of companies, rather than independent contractors susceptible to predatory leases.

The Port of Los Angeles tried to create such a requirement in 2008 as part of its Clean Trucks Program, whose primary aim was to require drivers to use trucks that emitted less pollution. The port argued that many of the drivers could not afford to purchase the newer trucks or technology required by the initiative.

But the employee mandate was struck down by federal courts, a decision that the Teamsters blame for exacerbating a problem of abusive leases.

Truckers have had more success with state labor officials. Since 2011, the California Labor Commissioner’s office has awarded port truck drivers over $46 million in cases where they claimed they were misclassified as contractors rather than employees.

andrew.khouri@latimes.com

Follow me @khouriandrew on Twitter

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