By Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa
Published in the Press-Telegram, November 12, 2015
Driving a truck can be an arduous job. The hours are long and road congestion and bad weather can make travel grueling. Thankfully, the state of California recognized this long ago and enacted meal and rest break rules that help keep truckers alert behind the wheel.
The provisions are not burdensome. In fact, they apply to most of the state’s workforce. Under California law, a worker is entitled to a 30-minute meal break after five hours of work and a 10-minute rest break after every four hours worked. Meal breaks were enacted in 1916, while rest breaks were approved in 1932.
Unfortunately, there are some in Washington, D.C. who are looking to repeal these laws in the Golden State. The House approved a transportation spending bill Nov. 5 that would strip California and 21 other states from requiring such breaks for truck drivers that they have received for years. And if that language is ultimately approved as part of a compromise with the Senate later this month, the safety of motorists across the Southland will be jeopardized because of it.
Who’s behind this effort? The American Trucking Association (ATA), which tried to have meal and rest breaks thrown out by the federal courts but lost in July 2014. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena ruled that such breaks were not a violation of U.S. law, as ATA asserted.
While the trucking industry argued that state meal and rest break laws would force drivers to alter their routes so they could find appropriate places to exit the highway to take breaks, it couldn’t actually present any evidence that minor changes in routes to accommodate the law were limiting drivers to a smaller set of possible travel routes. So now ATA is looking to run an end around the decision.
At a time when ATA is always claiming there is a shortage of truck drivers, one might think it would want to make conditions better for them. But its actions here prove that’s just not the case. The industry not only wants to take meal and rest breaks from truckers, but it also wants to make sure that when a driver is paid by the mile, employers don’t have to pay the driver for non-driving duties like safety checks, training and wait time loading and unloading. All this adds up to is wage theft by the industry and it jeopardizes highway safety by not giving drivers the rest breaks that they need to stay alert.
The consequences of eliminating breaks could be quite real. Already, nearly 4,000 lives are claimed each year on U.S. highways in accidents involving tractor trailers. And in the most recent available numbers from 2013, 97 percent of vehicle occupants killed in two-vehicle crashes involving a passenger vehicle and a large truck were occupants of passenger vehicles.
Southern California, with its vast network of freeways, is unfortunately ripe for such incidents. And the problem is exacerbated by the actions of some companies working out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where port truck drivers are often treated as independent contractors by their employers and must log long hours just to make ends meet. The Teamsters have been fighting that fight for years, and despite some successes, overworked and poorly paid port truck drivers continue to be an issue.
The Teamsters are extremely concerned with the inclusion of overly broad and dangerous language which would pre-empt state meal and rest break laws that protect the working conditions of commercial drivers. Congress is facing a Nov. 20 deadline to approve a new transportation spending measure. If elected officials care about highway safety, they will strip such provisions from any final bill.