July 20–Truckers rolling down California’s highways are entitled to take more breaks than drivers in most of America. But that would change if a congressional attempt to override the state’s work rules succeeds — which union officials and truck drivers say would make the state’s highways more dangerous.
“It’s about having safe roads when people are driving literal killing machines alongside you,” said Rome Aloise, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents truckers and delivery workers. “I want to make sure that the guy in the truck next to me, driving 60,000 pounds, is not going to run me over because he falls asleep.”
Truckers driving through California are now subject to the state’s employment laws. Transportation employees are generally entitled to a 30-minute meal break every five hours they work, as well as a 10-minute rest break every four hours they work.
But since the election of President Donald Trump, trucking companies feel they have a good chance to override the California rules. Legislation moving through Congress this week, originally written by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, would prevent states from setting their own rules for truck drivers’ work hours. State rules would be preempted by federal regulations that require only a 30-minute rest break after eight hours of driving.
The debate amounts to yet another policy tug-of-war between California and the Republican-controlled nation’s capital. It’s dividing truckers, who often work grueling 10- to 12-hour shifts, and their employers, who could save millions of dollars in payroll and avoid employment lawsuits from drivers who say they didn’t allow them to take required breaks.
Supporters of the measure say a patchwork of state-by-state wage regulations doesn’t make sense for an industry in which employees can cross multiple state borders in one work shift.
“It is beyond belief that we can live in a country where every state you cross can decide when a driver has to take a break,” said Joe Rajkovacz, an executive with the Western States Trucking Association, an industry group that is among those lobbying Congress for the rule change. The legislation is one of the trucking industry’s top priorities, he said.
But opponents argue that getting enough rest is critical for drivers’ safety and say California should be allowed to set its own rules.
The policy change was included in both the House transportation funding bill and the Senate’s Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill in recent weeks.
The new legislation would apply only to drivers involved in interstate shipping. But that includes anyone who ships a load that comes from out of state — so if one trucker takes a parcel from Reno to Sacramento and another trucker takes it from Sacramento to Fremont, both would be affected by the rule changes.
Truckers operating out of the Port of Oakland or other ports that handle international shipping would also be affected.
At least 20 states also have their own meal and rest break laws that would be impacted — but the effort in Congress is aimed mostly at limiting California’s influence over the trucking industry, industry lobbyists say.
The push began after a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that the state’s more generous meal and rest break regulations apply to truckers.
In that case, a group of truckers sued delivery company Penske Logistics, saying they were cheated out of their breaks. The Obama administration sided with the drivers, with Justice Department arguing that they should be covered by California’s regulations.
The proposed policy change would be retroactive, eliminating the opportunity for lawsuits against companies that denied employees breaks required under California law.
Mickey Lee Dilts, one of the plaintiffs in the Penske case, said he and the other truckers reluctantly decided to settle their lawsuit last month after nearly a decade of litigation because his lawyers were worried about Congress passing the rule change.
“As a truck driver, you’re constantly being pushed to keep moving and moving, or you’re trying to eat while you’re driving,” said Dilts, 45, who lives in Fontana. Getting a long enough break could be “a matter of life and death in some situations,” he said.
Truckers and union officials point to studies showing that driver fatigue is one of the top 10 causes of large truck crashes.
But Bill Aboudi, the president of AB Trucking, a small trucking company based at the Port of Oakland, contended that California regulations just don’t make sense for trucking. While it might be easy to take a 10-minute break in a factory or retail job, he said, truckers who are stuck in heavy highway traffic or waiting in line to get into the port can’t clock out whenever they want.
Aboudi was sued in 2008 by former employees who said he didn’t give them the required breaks. He says he followed the law, but a court ruled against him, and he’s paid $200,000 a year in legal fees as appeals and settlement negotiations stretch on. “It’s a shakedown,” he said.
Denham has become the trucking industry’s point man on this issue, introducing amendments aimed at overriding state meal and rest break rules in 2015 and 2016. One amendment passed the House in 2015, with Republican support and Democratic opposition, but died in the Senate.
The provision included in this year’s bills is copied from Denham’s previous amendments. But his staff declined to comment.
The industry has rewarded Denham handsomely. Since he first ran for Congress in 2010, Denham has taken $38,500 from political action committees associated with the American Trucking Association, one of the biggest groups lobbying for changing the meal and rest rules. In all, he’s received more than $193,000 from the trucking industry, according to data from OpenSecrets, a campaign finance website.
Denham’s district voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, and he’s seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican House members in the country.
To be sure, some California truck drivers aren’t fans of the state’s break rules.
Rick Rogers, a trucker in La Honda who’s been on the road for 38 years, said he thought the regulations were excessive. He said stopping repeatedly for short breaks made him sleepier than just powering through a long drive.
“I don’t want someone to tell me, ‘Oh, in five hours, you need to stop and rest,'” he said.
Last week, the 61-year-old Rogers drove through the night from the Bay Area down the 101 to Santa Maria, pulling thousands of bottles of Gatorade and water to quench the thirst of firefighters facing roaring wildfires.
His solution for staying awake: Listening to conservative talk radio, with the volume turned all the way up.
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