Brothers Jose I. Estrada, 58, left, and Jose A. Estrada, 48, are seeking… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Two truck drivers have sued one of Southern California's largest trucking companies, alleging they were denied breaks, lunch hours and overtime because they were treated as independent contractors rather than employees of Harbor Express Inc.
The lawsuit filed this week is one of several complaints lodged against trucking companies in recent years and is seeking class-action status.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said it could affect as many as 400 truck drivers who worked for the Wilmington-based company since May 2009.
The complaint alleges that Harbor Express, which serves the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, misclassified hundreds of truck drivers as independent contractors so the firm wouldn't have to provide worker benefits such as rest breaks and overtime pay.
The civil suit, filed Monday by brothers Jose I. Estrada, 58, and Jose A. Estrada, 48, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges truck drivers act as direct employees, driving company-owned trucks exclusively for Harbor Express.
"It looks like a traditional employment, but they slap the title of independent contractors on them," said Brian Kabateck, one of the lawyers who filed the case.
"If they were truly independent contractors, they would own the truck or lease it," Kabateck said. They would also "have freedom to come and go and can take on other jobs and assignments. This is just a clever way to do a runaround of labor law."
Messages left for Andy Kim, president of Harbor Express, weren't returned Tuesday.
Harbor Express was founded in 1984 and lists 40 employees, according to public records. The firm reported annual sales of $3.6 million, according to business data provider Dun & Bradstreet Inc.
Trucking companies that serve the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have long relied on independent contractors to move goods. The twin seaport has about 10,000 registered trucks that move goods in and out of the ports, officials said. Industry experts estimate only about 10% of truck drivers are direct employees.
For the Estradas, being an independent contractor means small paychecks for long workdays — as little as $85 per load. Work is particularly grueling before the holiday shopping season when retailers are stocking shelves with new merchandise.
Truck drivers are paid per trip, no matter how long they take. Delays leaving the port aren't accounted for when they are paid, the younger Estrada said.
"They don't pay us a penny for the time we wait at the port," he said in Spanish. "I live paycheck to paycheck. I don't have a savings account."
He said it's hard to provide for his family as a contractor but said finding a company to directly hire him as a truck driver is nearly impossible. "All the trucking companies have the same system," he said.
Because they are classified as contractors, they aren't eligible for workers' compensation when they are injured. The older Estrada brother was left disabled after an accident and he's unsure whether he will ever be able to work again.
Critics say that the truck driver contractor model has given way to various wrongful labor practices.
California in 2008 began cracking down on trucking companies that misclassified employees as independent contractors. As attorney general, Jerry Brown filed at least five lawsuits against Southern California trucking companies that allegedly circumvented state labor laws.
In 2008, the twin seaports sought to reduce air pollution by trucks. They ordered that older trucks be phased out and others be retrofitted. At the Port of Los Angeles, one of the provisions of the clean truck program would have required trucking companies to directly hire drivers.
Trucking companies objected, filing a legal challenge. In 2011, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed some of the program's components but struck down the direct-employee provision of the mandate.
The case is now before the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision this summer.
Times researcher Scott J. Wilson contributed to this report.