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Poor conditions and low pay for truckers helped fuel supply chain crisis

By Ahiza García-Hodges

The idea of a national trucker shortage has gained prominence as one reason for the widespread supply chain issues that have crippled the economy over the past year. But some experts say there isn’t actually a driver shortage at all — and that suggesting that there is ignores the bigger issues within the industry.

Congestion at ports in California continues to cause supply chain delays as ships idle offshore waiting to unload their cargo and containers linger too long at the docks waiting to be transported by truck or rail. The delays have been blamed on shortages of a number of needs, including truck drivers and equipment like chassis and shipping containers. Calls for new drivers continue; a report from the American Trucking Associations says the shortage will hit a historic high of 80,000 this year.

“We don’t have a truck driver shortage at the ports,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “The problem is that these truckers’ time is used so inefficiently. The cranes, the longshoreman labor, all that gets priced and used efficiently.”

In the port ecosystem, truck drivers are paid by the load, not by the hour, making them some of the most vulnerable workers, Viscelli said. Other port workers get overtime pay and belong to unions, but truckers are classified as independent contractors. As such, they aren’t considered employees and don’t get any of the benefits or protections associated with that status.

“Truck drivers are the shock absorbers,” he said. “If the cranes are running behind, you can just keep the trucker there idle. You can back them up for hours, because they’re not being paid.”

Because of how they’re classified and compensated, truck drivers wait around until they’re needed, at no cost to the shipping companies. That means there’s little incentive to change and use them more efficiently, Viscelli said.

In contrast, efforts to reduce inefficiencies in other areas of the ports continue and have been successful. For instance, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced a plan last month to fineshipping companies that leave their cargoes on the docks for too long. The promise of fines proved so successful that the ports have delayed implementing them because early compliance led to a 26 percent drop in lingering containers.

If truckers were considered employees, their employers might be less inclined to let them sit idle for hours, because it would cost them in hourly wages and overtime, Viscelli said. Instead, the trucker-related inefficiencies in the supply chain and at the ports most severely cost the drivers themselves.

“They may wait hours to get there, wait hours to get a chassis they can use, and then if the port says, 'No, we don’t want that load,' that driver who gets $150 per load now has to find somewhere else to drop it, and a six-hour job turns into 10,” Viscelli said. “The system is designed with that flexible free truck driver labor assumed.”

California Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, which drew strong opposition from trucking companies, would change the classification of many truck drivers from independent contractor to employee. The reclassification could provide the incentive to make more efficient use of truckers’ time, but the state is blocked from enforcing it because of legal challenges.

For now, truckers continue to be misclassified, said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California, Hastings, College of the Law.

This article originally appeared on NBC News

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