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Long Haul Trucking Means Better Prices For Consumers, But Drivers Suffer Low Wages

NOEL KING, HOST:

The stuff that you buy in stores - clothes, food, electronics - almost all of it got there on a truck. Long-haul trucking is getting cheaper, and that's good for consumers. It means stuff is cheaper. But it's not so good for truck drivers because this is happening at their expense. Here's Keith Romer from Planet Money.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: In 2017, Kimberley Sikorski decided she was going to become a trucker. She called Prime Inc. - no relation to Amazon Prime - because they offered free training. Prime seemed eager to have her.

KIMBERLEY SIKORSKI: Literally, I think I called on a Thursday night, and they were ready to buy me a Greyhound ticket for Sunday to start on Monday.

ROMER: Sikorski took classes and drove with a trainer for three months. But before she could go out on her own, she had a choice to make.

SIKORSKI: So you're given the option to either be a company driver or a lease operator.

ROMER: Option one - she's a regular old employee paid based on how many miles she drives. Option two - she gets to be her own boss. She'd have to lease a truck through Prime. But then, after expenses, she would get a share of whatever her loads brought in in the form of a weekly check from Prime.

SIKORSKI: They say if you're not stupid and you're not lazy, then you'd make a lot more money being a lease operator, and you're kind of dumb if you pass that up.

ROMER: So Sikorski chose option two. She picked out her truck, financed through Prime - a brand-new blue Freightliner that she named Sapphire. Then she hit the road. But when she started receiving her weekly checks, something didn't seem right.

SIKORSKI: A lot of times, when I'm expecting to see a check for a couple of thousand dollars, I'm getting a bill for, like, $200 or $500 or $1,500.

ROMER: A bill - before Sikorski got her cut, Prime deducted her truck payments, insurance, equipment cost and Prime's percentage as a broker. Also, for an independent contractor, it sure felt like she worked for Prime.

SIKORSKI: So they say that you're not their employee, but you're completely bound to them. You're not allowed to take loads from anyone else. You're not allowed to ask for different loads than what they're giving you.

ROMER: Sikorski worked 70-hour weeks for six months. At the end of it, she had earned just $9,000.

SIKORSKI: It got to the point where I would be sitting in my truck crying because I'd be afraid to buy a hot dog. When it gets to the point of your electricity being shut off and your grocery bill not being able to be paid, there has to be something better.

ROMER: Finally, she quit.

Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in the industry. He says that for-hire long-haul trucking has become a commodity, and customers only really care about price.

STEVE VISCELLI: The way that the market has been constructed requires that you compete on the cost of labor.

ROMER: Getting Sikorski to lease a truck from Prime and then work as an independent contractor - that's a standard part of the business model for a lot of trucking companies now.

VISCELLI: It's like having, you know, a truck for free and paying the driver less than you would have to pay an employee.

ROMER: Some of those drivers, though, have started to push back. In recent years, there's been a wave of class actions, lawsuits against some of the biggest long-haul companies. In July, Kimberley Sikorski's old company, Prime, settled a lawsuit in which it was accused of misclassifying its employees and violating minimum wage laws.

Prime did not admit wrongdoing as part of its settlement, and they declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an emailed statement, a lawyer for Prime wrote, quote, "We have thousands of highly successful independent contractors and company drivers who thrive within our business model. The class action that was settled is completely unrelated to Ms. Sikorski's allegations. The litigation was seemingly endless and was best resolved."

As part of that settlement, 40,000 former drivers for Prime are eligible for a share of $28 million.

SIKORSKI: Which means it's, like, $700 a person.

ROMER: Does that seem like enough?

SIKORSKI: No (laughter). Honestly, it's kind of laughable.

ROMER: Kimberley Sikorski is driving for a different company now. And this time, she's an employee.

Keith Romer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES BRADLEY'S "YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW BUT I KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.