Truckers Spend the Holidays Driving Too Much for Too Little Pay

Much of America will be engaged in a holiday gift-buying bonanza this month. And whether it’s via online order or plucking wares directly off store shelves, they have truck drivers to thank for the available goods.

“Black Friday, Cyber Monday, everything you shop for or order online is going to be brought by a truck. Many truck drivers opt to spend the holidays alone to deliver that freight and to make that little bit of extra money,” said Desiree Wood, a driver and president of REAL Women in Trucking, an organization that advocates for better work conditions for drivers. “It means you may be in some strange town you’ve never been in before, and isolated to where you can park, which is usually a truck stop where there isn’t any good food.”

A lack of good food options is just the beginning of the issues truck drivers face. Many make paltry amounts of money, even as they spend long hours in a tiny space a long way from home. The median income for America’s 1.8 million truck drivers is $42,000 annually, and those in the bottom 10 percent of earners make just $27,000.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the last 30 years, truck driver pay has plummeted. According to the National Transportation Institute, if wages in the industry had kept up with inflation since 1980, the average driver would be making $111,000 per year. Other estimates don’t show that dramatic of a drop, but even conservative ones calculate drivers should be making some $55,000 today.

The reason for the steep drop is a web of bad policies, but much of the problem stems from the way in which workers are compensated: By the mile, not the hour.

“You might work a 14-hour day and you only drove 150-200 miles. If you only get paid for the miles, you don’t make anything,” said Wood. “The money is so unpredictable. You could get $400 one week and $65 the next week. You just don’t know.”

If wages had kept up with inflation since 1980, the average driver would be making $111,000 per year.

Drivers aren’t paid for the time they wait for their truck to be loaded or offloaded, and traffic and other road conditions, as well as safety regulations that limit the number of hours they can be on the road in a given day, cut into their mileage totals. Every minute spent without the landscape whizzing by their windows is a minute that drivers are essentially working for free.

In October, a U.S. District Court judge in Arkansas ruled that Department of Labor wage regulations require companies to pay drivers for the parts of the workday during which they are on-duty, but not driving or sleeping. Other court rulings have also reprimanded companies for not paying their drivers the full minimum wage.

The industry as a whole, though, still clings to the model in which miles are the only thing that equals money. It also relies on recruitment of new drivers to keep wages low. While articles about trucker shortages have been a mainstay of media coverage in recent years — which in theory should result in pay increases due to competition for workers — companies tend to instead churn through inexperienced drivers who accept lower pay, despite potentially severe consequences.

“Routinely, they attract new drivers, take their money [as compensation for training them], train them hardly at all, put them on the road, and then they crash or die or kill people,” explained Anne Balay, author of Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. Those who don’t leave the profession because of accidents often do so because the pay is so low, and then the cycle repeats itself.

“Basically, if you have a pulse you are going to get a job as a truck driver, and you are probably going to be able to get into some company-sponsored truck driving program,” said Wood. “But when you get out there, you realize you’re not making the money you thought you were going to make … You always have these students that are being churned through the system that make very little.”

And it’s even worse if you are a woman, LGBTQ person, or person of color, who often face harassment on the job in addition to the low pay and inadequate training. “If you take what is already a vulnerable labor structure and put these people in it, you have a fucked-up situation,” said Balay. “That sets them up for all the labor abuses you can imagine.”

Further undermining the ability of drivers to make a fair wage is that many are misclassified by their employers as independent contractors, meaning that though they work for just one company, they can be denied benefits and are responsible for many costs usually born by an employer, including the employer-paid side of the payroll tax and upkeep for their vehicles. It also means they can be abandoned at the slightest sign of adversity.

That’s what happened to Janet Steverson. She thought she was signing on for a full-time, in-house job with an Illinois shipping company, but was instead hired as an independent contractor. After she got in an accident (in which her fingers were so badly cut that one had to be amputated), she says the company severed the relationship and left her with nothing.

“I’ve lost my house, I lost everything,” she said. “I have no money, no income no nothing, and they’re also not paying my doctor’s bills.”

Steverson was labeled as a contractor even though she says everything she did was controlled by the company for which she drove. “I have to go where they tell me to go, I have to use their fuel card,” she said. “How can I be an independent contractor?”

A lawsuit involving one such misclassified driver, Dominic Oliveira, was heard by the Supreme Court in October. He is suing for back pay, and the case revolves around whether he is able to engage in a lawsuit or whether his case has to be heard in private arbitration, a venue in which businesses interests almost always win. Oliveira details instances in which he would drive 1,000 miles in a week and yet have to pay his employer at the end because of fuel costs and the costs of tools he claims the company required him to buy.

Companies have gotten very good at letting workers think that being an independent contractor will give them more control over their lives and more pay, when in reality it foists much of the business risk onto the individual worker.

It’s not uncommon for a driver to work 50 hours and earn zero dollars.

“These are workers who often times only have a few years at most in the industry and they do buy it. They get in these very coercive arrangements,” said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “I’ve worked on cases in which every third payweek in which drivers worked, their pay is zero or negative … It’s not uncommon for a driver to work 50 hours and earn zero dollars.”

Why do trucking corporations get away with paying so little? In part, it’s because the government gave up regulating them nearly four decades ago, passing the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 as part of the bipartisan push that also deregulated airlines and other industries in the name of boosting business competition, and then undercut the unions that were helping to keep wages up.

“They broke up the unions and stopped regulating freight,” said Balay. “Instead of regulating companies and freight, the government started regulating the individual worker.”

All of this is occurring today under the specter of automation, with the widespread belief that within the next generation, if not sooner, most long-haul driving will be done by autonomous vehicles. When that occurs, it’s the best-paying trucking jobs that are most likely to disappear.

“All else equal, it’s going to be those better jobs that make more sense to automate from an economic perspective,” said Viscelli, because long highway routes will be easiest for robot trucks to navigate. He estimates that driverless trucks will result in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of high- and middle-wage trucking jobs, leaving mostly lower-wage jobs behind, such as those taking loads through cities and packages door to door.

This month, all of these problems will be ongoing as drivers blanket the country, ensuring that families everywhere have what they need and desire to celebrate the holidays, even if the people responsible earn very little in the process.



Michigan Is the Latest Example of the Restaurant Lobby Subverting Democracy

It’s been a bad week for democracy. While all eyes have been on a Republican power grab in Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature quietly gutted its brand-new laws to increase the state’s minimum wage and provide residents with paid sick leave.

Lawmakers initially passed the popular policies in September, after it became clear that ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022, phase out the tipped minimum wage, and guarantee 72 hours of paid sick leave were likely to be approved if they were put to the state’s voters in November. Concerned that they’d be unable to overturn a ballot initiative, which would require a three-fourths supermajority, Republican legislators took the extraordinary step of passing the law themselves — so they could come back and dismantle it with a simple majority in the current lame duck session.

The new Republican bill delays the minimum wage increase by eight years, until the year 2030. Paid sick time is slashed in half, to just 36 hours per year. In addition, it maintains the tipped minimum wage, increasing it to just $4.58 by 2030, which earlier legislation would have phased out. The bill now heads to the desk of the outgoing Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who is expected to sign it into law.

Outright subversion of democracy to defeat minimum wage hikes isn’t new. A similar series of events played out in Washington, D.C., just this year, when the supposedly progressive D.C. council repealed a ballot initiative to eliminate the tipped minimum wage just four months after the voters passed it. In Maine, lawmakers reinstated the tipped minimum wage in 2017 after voters eliminated it the year before.

It seems that the same lobbying group may have been behind the repeal of all three bills.

The National Restaurant Association, or NRA, represents more than 500,000 restaurant businesses, making it the world’s largest food service trade association. Over the last 28 years, the NRA and its largest corporate members have spent more than $78 million on campaign contributions, spending $12 million just in the 2016 election cycle. And they have a powerful and dangerous playbook: prevent minimum wage increases at any cost.

All three of the most recent minimum wage hike reversals received significant backing from the National Restaurant Association. In Michigan, dozens of legislators received campaign contributions from the National Restaurant Association during this past election cycle, including the House majority leader.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, the state-level partner of the NRA, openly bragged about the amount of control that this bought it over the state’s minimum wage fight, saying that it “worked tirelessly with the Michigan Legislature to prevent this onerous proposal from going to the ballot.”

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., the NRA contributed more than $236,000 in campaign funds to 13 of the city council’s 14 members. It helped fund an astroturf campaign designed to appear as if it was led by restaurant workers, which flooded public hearings with testimonies. In Maine, the Maine Restaurant Association vehemently lobbied the state legislature until the tipped minimum wage increase was overturned.

One in six restaurant workers, or 16.7 percent, live below the official poverty line.

In most of its campaigns, the National Restaurant Association claims that minimum wage increases will hurt businesses and eliminate tips that workers depend on. Even a cursory review of the research shows that neither claim is true. The growth of restaurants and restaurant employment is more robust in “equal treatment states,” where there is no tipped minimum wage, compared with states that use the federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13 per hour. And tipped workers in those states see 17 percent higher earnings on average, including tips.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, one in six restaurant workers, or 16.7 percent, live below the official poverty line — fully 10 percentage points higher than workers outside the restaurant industry. Abolishing the tipped minimum wage is particularly beneficial to women and people of color, both of whom receive significantly less in tips than their white, male counterparts.

Raising the minimum wage is among the most popular polices out there, across party lines. In fact, a study released earlier this week finds that in literally every single state in the U.S., the minimum wage is lower than residents want it to be. That’s why when minimum wage increases are on the ballot, they pass. So the National Restaurant Association is doing everything it can to keep voters from having a say, with dangerous consequences for low-wage workers — and for democracy writ large.



First Person

U.S. Military Actions Help Create Poverty Overseas. Now Trump Is Blocking Poor Immigrants.

I am the proud Afro-Arab, disabled daughter of Sudanese immigrants. When I was a kid, my father would share stories of his experiences growing up during the tumultuous years of military rule in Sudan, the coup that put Omar Al-Bashir in power, and the two decades of economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies. He described the mass protests against former president Jaafar Numeiri during his youth, and shared the legacy of resistance borne by my foremothers that continues today.

My parents raised my sisters and me here in the U.S., with security and opportunity we could never have in Sudan. Yet, the cruel irony is that my parents would have loved nothing more than to see us grow up on our ancestral lands. Instead, compelled by economic and political unrest, they left their loved ones behind and immigrated to northern Virginia, a move that they never would have been able to make if a new Trump immigration rule had been in effect.

The new policy, which would expand the existing public charge rule, would require most immigrants seeking green cards to show they have a middle-class income and that they have not (and will never) receive government benefits, including Medicaid and Medicare Part D, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), or housing assistance programs. It would radically rewrite our immigration system to explicitly favor white, wealthy, and non-disabled immigrant applicants.

Most abhorrent of all, it threatens immigrants’ livelihoods by punishing them for using the public benefits they need to survive, just as the U.S. contributed to the disruption of their livelihoods abroad through militarism and unchecked state violence.

In 1998, not long after my parents moved to the U.S., they had to watch their new country attack the homeland they were forced to leave only years before. The American military, under orders from President Bill Clinton, bombed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, leveling the only factory in the country producing cheap medicine for tuberculosis or veterinary needs. (Sudan’s economy was primarily based on agriculture.)

The bombing of Al-Shifa, which represented at least 50 percent of total domestic pharmaceutical production, devastated the already strained Sudanese medical system. The Clinton administration justified the attack by claiming it had evidence showing the plant was being used by Al Qaeda to manufacture chemical weapons — evidence that later proved untrue.

Twenty years later, my extended family in Sudan is still managing electricity and water cut offs, gas shortages, and economic insecurity. The U.S. trade embargo, imposed after Sudan was designated as a state sponsor of terror, has served only to deepen wealth inequality in Sudan while empowering Al-Bashir’s brutally repressive military regime to hoard the nation’s wealth and operate with total impunity.

Since 2000, more than 360,000 Sudanese people have immigrated to the United States, like my parents did. Many people arriving at our borders today have been directly impacted by U.S. foreign policy.

Only a few years after the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, the administration of President George W. Bush launched the catastrophic “War on Terror.” In the years since 9/11, some half a million people have been killed as a consequence of U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. Another 21 million people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria have become displaced. Today, the U.S.-led “War on Terror” spans 76 countries.

“I can’t bring my family to a country that doesn’t want us.”

Iraq remains one of the top 10 countries of origin for permanent immigrants to the U.S. annually. In fact, seven of those 10 countries have been subject to violent foreign intervention by the U.S. or crushing economic blockades and sanctions, including Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, and El Salvador. Nevertheless, if the public charge rule is implemented in its current form, 60 percent of Central American immigrants and 34 percent of African immigrants would be at high risk of denial.

This is not an accident — it is part of the plan to base our immigration system on white supremacy. The president has made that explicit in his language, and in his broader immigration policies.

Consider what happened with Trump’s very first immigration policy. In January 2017, the administration issued its infamous Muslim Ban, temporarily banning entry of immigrants from my parents’ homeland of Sudan, along with six other majority-Muslim nations. Every country on that list had been subject to violent foreign intervention by the U.S., a fact first pointed out by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Shortly after the ban went into effect, I hurried to Dulles International Airport to provide translation for those impacted. Within an hour, I was approached by a Sudanese father and his young family. I learned that they had been granted an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S. through the Diversity Visa Program, the same program my parents had used in the 1980s (and which the Trump administration has also tried to get rid of).

The father was afraid for his family and asked me to help him arrange their flight back. If they left, they would almost certainly never be able to return, so I pleaded with him to stay and seek legal support. But as he looked around at the chaotic scene unfolding in the airport, this young father of two remained unconvinced. He gripped his wife’s hand and left.

I never learned what became of him, but I still remember his parting words: “I can’t bring my family to a country that doesn’t want us.”

Immigration policy that ties admissibility solely to a person’s perceived economic and social worth is inherently violent. We cannot at once claim to be the world’s moral authority, while entrenching ableism and white supremacy through exclusionary policies at home and imperialist violence abroad. My family has carried the weight of these policies for decades, and millions more will be devastated if the Trump administration has its way.


First Person

A Surge In Financial Aid Audits Is Trapping Low-Income College Students

It was 9 p.m. on an August night in southern California, and I was about to get my favorite burrito. I had spent the day with friends at  Shawe’s Cove, my go-to beach tucked beneath the mansions in Laguna Beach. The moment I took my first bite of Carne Asada, my friend asked: “Have you gotten your financial aid?” Confused, and a little upset she was bringing up financial aid when I hadn’t even had a chance to finish chewing, I hesitantly replied “Uhh, I’m not sure — have you?”

It turns out that for most UC-Riverside students, financial aid for the upcoming school year had been released a few days before. When I checked my bank account the next day, I had not received my reimbursement from my financial aid package.

As a senior who depends on financial aid, I’ve filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — the form required by the federal government in order to receive grants and loans for college — three times previously and never had a problem. But after digging through old emails, I found one I’d missed from my school’s financial aid office earlier in the summer stating “Financial Aid App Incomplete.” After logging into my school’s student web portal, I finally found the reason my aid was being withheld: I had been selected for verification.

Verification, or the auditing of student financial aid applications for additional review, is routine — even when the original information is correct. The Department of Education selects roughly 30 percent of financial aid recipients’ applications to verify, but the information they choose to review varies. I was audited for my dependency status, so over the course of the past couple of months, I have submitted my mother’s original tax returns to my financial aid office, resubmitted them with specific IRS documents after they were rejected, and then waited for weeks while they were reviewed by my school’s financial aid office. All told, the documents and late fees cost about $150

Unfortunately, my situation is far from unique. The 2018-2019 application cycle saw an unusually high number of verifications due to an algorithm adjustment from the Department of Education. The algorithm change, combined with the repeal of the 30 percent cap on audits — removed in anticipation of the new algorithm — has caused the number of verifications to skyrocket. At my own university, where more than half of students receive Pell Grants, a financial aid counselor reported that 8,000 students were selected for verification — more than double the 3,000 who went through the verification process last year.

Data show that 98 percent of students picked for verification are low-income.

Data show that 98 percent of students picked for verification are low-income, and that about half of students that are eligible for a federal Pell Grant are selected. About 95 percent of students that successfully make it through verification have no change in their aid, but many students do not make it through the process.  According to the National College Access Network, in the 2015-16 academic year — before the verification numbers spiked — 90,000 low-income students were not able to complete the verification process and receive aid.

Even students who make it through the process face delays that could be critical for those who are struggling to afford their rent, groceries, and school expenses. For me, going back to school involved taking a giant leap of faith. By the time I arrived in D.C. for the fall semester I was still without any financial aid. I spent my second day in D.C. calling my financial aid office, student business services, and the center where I would be staying. I was terrified that if my aid didn’t come through, I would be forced to drop the program.

After two hours of fighting my way through busy signals, I finally managed to find myself in queue. I was on hold for several more hours until someone told me that they had received my paperwork, but had not yet flagged it to be seen by an administrator.

This process took a total of nearly 10 weeks to complete. If it weren’t for working both during summer and the quarter, family support, and guidance from financial aid counselors at my school, I  would not have been able to make it to this point. As a first-generation college student whose family never left the town were they grew up, the 11 or so weeks I would spend more than 2,000 miles away from home might as well be 11 years.

But I am one of the lucky ones. For more than 90,000 other students like me, this all ended very different.



A Trump Immigration Rule Could Devastate Rural Hospitals

According to a recent report, the Trump administration’s proposed change to what’s known as the “public charge” immigration rule would endanger $17 billion in Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals across the United States. This could threaten some rural hospitals, which are already facing an epidemic of closures, and leave many communities without a hospital within a 35-mile radius.

The rule proposed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services would require most immigrants seeking green cards to show that they have a middle-class income: specifically, more than 250 percent of the federal poverty line (about $62,750 for a family of four). Immigrants could also fail the test if they have received government benefits, including Medicaid and Medicare Part D, in the past or if officials feel they are likely to receive them at any point in the future. The test would also penalize use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and housing assistance programs.

Researchers at the consulting firm Manatt found the proposed changes could drive disenrollment from Medicaid, even for people who are lawfully in the United States, eligible for coverage, and wouldn’t be subject to the public charge rule, because they fear running afoul of the new requirements. Similar fears are already pushing eligible immigrant families off SNAP, especially those in “mixed status” households that include lawful residents, citizens, and/or undocumented people.

Overall, the researchers estimate public charge could affect 13.2 million immigrants on Medicaid, including 7.6 million children, who consume nearly $70 billion in Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program services annually.

When people begin to unenroll from Medicaid, the rise in uninsured people who still need health care will lead to fewer Medicaid reimbursements and a corresponding increase in uncompensated care costs. That will be particularly hard on rural hospitals, in part because rural communities rely more heavily on Medicaid coverage than their urban counterparts due to the lower number of other insurance options and high poverty rates.

While the majority of immigrants in the United States live in urban areas, they are making up an increasing share of rural communities. When rural hospitals experience even a relatively small drop in income from losing these patients, Manatt researcher April Grady notes that it “can have an outsized impact.”

Texas, California, and Nevada could see particularly acute chilling effects for their immigrant residents in both urban and rural areas if the public charge rule is approved, thanks to their large immigrant communities. Texas is already struggling with hospital closures, where changes to Medicaid policy, along with the state’s refusal to expand the program, have hit rural facilities hard.

Texas, California, and Nevada could see particularly acute chilling effects for their immigrant residents.

Sharita Thomas, a research associate with the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program (NCRHRP), observed that there have been 90 rural hospital closures since 2010, many in the South, with more on the horizon. 68 percent of rural hospitals vulnerable to full closure are Critical Access Hospitals, which are facilities that are at least 35 miles away from other hospitals, maintain 24/7 emergency care, and meet several other criteria to receive unique benefits designed to make them more financially stable, including cost-based Medicare and in some cases Medicaid reimbursement.

When the sole hospital in a rural community closes, it forces patients to search further afield for care, a particular concern with obstetrical and emergency treatment. It also has a wider negative economic impact. “In rural communities,” said George Pink, Deputy Director of the NCRHRP, “the hospital is the largest or second-largest employer in the region. When that source of employment goes away, there are often ripple effects.” This can extend to companies considering relocation but reluctant to do business in an area that lacks a hospital or doesn’t provide sufficient hospital services, depriving rural regions of economic opportunities.

Even if hospitals facing budget constraints don’t close, they could start cutting programs, with labor and delivery a frequent early target. When cuts fail to achieve the desired goal and get more drastic, a floundering hospital may ponder a merger with another health care entity. Hospital mergers in urban and rural areas alike are rapidly accelerating, with 102 in 2016 alone and a comparable number in 2017. Many of the hospital chains gobbling up smaller competitors are Christian, with the Catholic hospital system in particular expanding rapidly and cutting off access to reproductive health services in the process.

Public charge could have another unintended consequence on rural hospitals, where physicians from immigrant backgrounds make up an important component of health care access. Many rural communities are counting on immigrants to meet health care provider shortages, offering incentives to those willing to work in underserved communities. Physicians have already warned that the executive order restricting entry from majority-Muslim countries is detrimental to health care access in the U.S. and this rule could be another deterrent.

Determining the impact of public charge on rural hospitals “really is a bit of a numbers game,” said Grady, but it’s a game that the federal government has been unwilling to play. She added that while the proposed rule hints at issues like people being afraid to seek emergency care and mixed-status households withdrawing from benefits, it declined to provide estimated fiscal and social impacts.

“There’s administration hurdles that are not fully explored in the proposed rule,” she said.