Debate Over Highway Bill Amendment Centers on Trucker Back Pay

November 25, 2015 by Seth Sparks, @sethbsparks

Lawsuits over the back pay of truckers have become the target of an amendment to the House of Representative’s highway bill, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Congressman Jeff Denham (R-California) sponsored the amendment, which aims to get rid of litigation in which truckers are seeking compensation from companies such as Walmart, Swift, and J.B. Hunt. More than 50 such lawsuits are currently underway in California, where thousands of truckers are calling for back pay for some of their downtime, arguing that inspections, traffic jams, and meals should be factored into the amount they are paid.

While there is certainly a lot of money at stake for larger companies, the ramifications of passing such legislation go beyond these particular cases. If court decisions were given in favor of the truckers, it would reinforce a growing trend of recent rulings, giving truckers momentum in seeking back pay. On the other hand, if the amendment was eventually enacted as part of a final highway bill and the cases were dismissed, truckers would be much less likely to put pressure on companies for compensation of their down time in the future.

Twenty states, including California, currently require employers to pay their employees for down time. But since truckers for larger companies get paid mostly based on mileage (on contract) as opposed to hourly wages such as those given to employees, such compensation isn’t taken into consideration.

Some advocates for the amendment, such as Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), say its intent is ensuring a minimum wage for truckers as opposed to the current system of pay-per-mile. Other representatives, including Denham, claim the amendment is saving larger companies from dealing with “a patchwork of regulations.”

For truckers, however, especially those who filed lawsuits, the move could add to growing discontent among drivers over their work conditions and adequate compensation. Labor strikes have become common in ports such as Long Beach, where truckers have voiced concerns over the fact that they are hired as contractors rather than employees, leaving them without health benefits and guaranteed wages.

An amendment similar to the one being debated in Congress is not included in the Senate’s version of the highway bill, meaning that if it is included in the final version recently passed by the House, the issue would be taken up again when the two bills merge.

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