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Senators urge retailers to crack down on alleged trucking contractor abuse

Retail companies must ensure that they are not being complicit in reported labor law violations and driver abuse perpetuated by trucking companies they contract with, a group of Democratic senators said in a letter addressed to more than 15 major retailers.

The July 31 letter, signed by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., came in response to a two-part story published by USA Today in June, reporting that some port trucking companies rampantly violated federal and state labor laws by allowing truck drivers to work well past federal work standards and classified them as independent contractors, effectively depriving them of pay and benefits.

The senators alleged that some companies have "reportedly helped perpetuate" these abuses by ignoring labor violations and mistreatment of workers, and asked that the retailers formally respond to a series of questions to ensure that they are contracting transportation companies that comply with state and federal labor laws. Retailers use third-party transportation companies to move goods from ports to distribution centers, but they are often arranged by shipping and logistics companies, USA Today reported.

"We were disappointed to learn that some companies have reportedly helped perpetuate these abuses by turning a blind eye to labor violations and worker mistreatment occurring at port trucking companies they contract with," the senators wrote. "As a major U.S. corporation, you also have a role to play in ensuring that you are not complicit in the mistreatment of port truck drivers and that American consumers, your customers, are not unwittingly supporting labor abuses in the United States."

The letter was sent to 16 companies, including United Parcel Service Inc., Target Corp., Home Depot Inc. and Costco, all of which were named in the USA Today report as having contracts with trucking companies that have allegedly committed labor violations. The letter was also addressed to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

The senators posed three questions to the companies, including asking whether they were aware of any violations of federal and state labor laws by trucking companies they contracted with, as well as any actions they had taken to rid such abuses from their supply chains. They also asked the retailers if they would cancel contracts with port trucking companies that require employees to participate in lease-to-own truck programs or those that have committed labor law violations, and urged them to publicly advocate for higher standards among port trucking companies.

The senators asked the companies to respond to the questions by Aug. 14.

The two-part USA Today report found that on top of 20-hour days, some drivers are required to pay for their own repairs, insurance, parking and gas, which can be a substantial hit to their paycheck. The report, which focused primarily on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, found that trucking companies often coerce drivers into signing lease-to-own contracts on their trucks, but do not allow them to keep their vehicle if they are fired or quit. The lease-to-own arrangements were made as a way to introduce more emissions-friendly trucks, and to replace older trucks that drivers may still have been using.

According to the USA Today report, which cited state lobbying disclosure forms, retailers have paid lobbyists more than $12 million to fight bills that would have held companies liable or given drivers a minimum wage. The senators promised they would "pursue aggressively" all tools at their disposal to end what they called the "rampant mistreatment" of port truck drivers.

Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase cargo supply chain efficiency have not only reduced congestion, but also pollutants, and have helped bring new trucks to thousands of drivers through financing and down payment assistance.

Fernandez called the lease-to-own programs "far from exploitive," adding that they have allowed for the transition of owner-operators to cleaner, lower-emission vehicles.

“Retailers are committed to safe and sustainable supply chains, and they take federal safety laws that limit the number of hours a driver may work on the road each day very seriously," Fernandez said. "Allegations of abuse or violations of these laws should be investigated whenever a credible accusation is made. However, isolated cases should not be used to tarnish the reputation of an entire industry, particularly one that has spent the last decade working in partnership with government and civic leaders to promote real, lasting solutions at our nation’s busiest ports.”

The National Retail Federation did not return a request for comment.