‘No Jobs Available’: The Feast or Famine Careers of America’s Port Drivers.

Oct 28, 2022 · 46 comments
Kathleen Brady (New York City)
It is shameful that in a story that has sufficient judgment to mention East Coast ports, the N.Y. Times cites Savannah, Ga. and does not have one mention of the port of New York and New Jersey. This breaks a basic rule of journalism about covering local angles and it is also unfortunately standard procedure at this paper which got a taxpayer subsidy to remain in New York City rather than leave the state.
MS (Virginia)
Undoubtedly it’s a tough way to make a living, but it’s cyclical like a lot of jobs are. One point - graduating from kindergarten is not really a thing. Graduating from high school and college is.
Blue Danube (Florida)
Money in trucking was always in long haul freight and trade off is being away from home for up to a month a time. I know, both of my brothers do it ( both their spouses at home, btw) I’m surprised that Mr. Jackson is acting like this is new to him ( or his wife) especially given that is increasingly a rare route for high school graduates and recent immigrants to make 100k plus and have some kind of upward path ( Mr Jackson is owner/operator and has couple of employees) But it would be like surgeon saying he wants to be home for dinner every night. That’s just not the reality for the kind of money he wants to make.
Bruce Maier (Shoreham, BY)
It was not long ago that there were large numbers of ships waiting to unload in southern california ports. Not now. What happened? Reduction in demand via rerouting, reduced consumer demand AND improvements in unloading, from the additional rail lines added at the ports. So, additional rail lines reduces the demand for truckers. And that is good for the environment, as trains pollute far less per hauled ton. Truckers stuggle. The working conditions and pay are so bad that the turnover rate is 100%. That is one of the reasons that there were not enough truckers before the addition of rail lines. Trucking companies are attempting to replace truckers with self-driving vehicles. And, to be truthful, large sections of the trip can be done with existing automation - i.e. on the interstates. Be aware that the next time you see a truck on an interstate that the driver is literally asleep at the wheel, getting in the necessary brake safety rest before getting to their destination, where self-driving is not yet capable of handling everything.
Pete in Downtown (back in town)
One of the stories contained in this article is the ongoing problem faced by many long-haul OTR (over the road) drivers. Long times away from home and family, and the real wages (inflation adjusted) are significantly lower than 30 years ago. Those make it very understandable that drivers like this gentleman decided to to shorter-haul driving doing port pickups. Unfortunately, that business is almost prototypically boom-bust in nature. Also, I wonder if one of the reasons for shipping being diverted to ports on the East Coast is the still unresolved labor dispute for freight railways. A sizeable number of containers are shipped by rail when going cross country. If you need whatever is shipped in those containers to be east of the Mississippi by a certain date, it's probably safer to pay the extra to have the ship go through the Panama canal, and unload either in one of ports in the Gulf or go all the way to the ports on the Atlantic seashore.
Bruce Maier (Shoreham, BY)
@Pete in Downtown Also note that more rail lines were added at the southern california ports, which were needed because there are not enough truckers, for the reasons you point out. Once again, an easily expressed problem defies simple solution. The underlying logic is this - if a problem could be solved easily, it would be. The ones that are hard to solve are the ones we see.
BayArea101 (Midwest)
"he is headed west on I-60." I think the author meant CA State Route 60, as there is no I-60.
Rodney G. Patton Sr (Peoria, AZ)
Suck it up Buttercup!!! It's been the same way for decades. Go look for work, don't just sit on your butt and wait for it to come to you, go get it!!! Shoot sale that new home and move out to where the freight lines are and save your business. You may have to be gone over a night or two, until you establish your clientele, but Momma and the babies will have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. You can make it if you work hard at it and adjust a little bit. It's better than loosing everything and then working for another Company and never get home. You've already tried that. I'm a third generation Owner/Operators. Don't let California take your business!!! You worked too hard for it. And by the way, what I read in this article was very well written and it's just trucking!!!
DC (South Florida)
All these drivers should stay home for 2 weeks and people would find out their value quickly.
Rex Nemorensis (Los Angeles)
There is a great underlying untold story here. The unionized workers at the port work under rules that benefit themselves but bring great economic harm to everybody outside of the union, such as these truck drivers. It is a myth that anti union sentiment is simply stirred up by capitalist overlords- these truckers know that the longshoremen are doing them dirty.
Lumpy (East Hampton)
@Rex Nemorensis Just the opposite—independent truckers should learn that a union is the only way to salvage any value from your labor. The longshoremen realize their power, and benefit themselves and their families. The “harm to everyone outside the union” is self imposed. “Going it alone” puts you in the gladiator pit—fighting for scraps as the billionaire shareholders pick you off one by one. Amazon and Starbucks workers are starting to wake up, and independent truckers should as well.
Someone (Somewhere)
I’m surprised there is little to no mention—or coverage, really—of politicians, H-2B visas, lobbyists such as the US Chamber of Commerce and migration. The US economy runs on cheap labor. And the hypocrisy, in particular by the GOP but yes also Democrats, is to increase H-2B visas instead of paying a better wages. Housing costs are insane; there is a housing shortage. Homeless shelters are full in many cities and Section 8 housing is literally a lottery. Many Americans are still unemployed and big businesses want cheap labor. It isn’t that many Americans do not want to do certain jobs; it is that they pay abysmally and offer no health care or other protections. There isn’t a “labor shortage”. If you work one hour a week the BLS will consider you employed. Businesses want cheap labor. The US Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest lobbyists on immigration. Rather than pay better wages, many groups and politicians just ask for more H-2B visas. https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/499788-gop-senators-urge-trump-not-to-restrict-guest-worker-visas/amp/ https://www.epi.org/blog/claims-of-labor-shortages-in-h-2b-industries-dont-hold-up-to-scrutiny/ https://en.as.com/latest_news/what-is-the-lowest-and-highest-income-to-qualify-for-medicaid-n/
Ralph Petrillo (NYC)
The Fed wants higher unemployment so their wealthy friends can pay lower salaries..
Barbara Barran (Brooklyn, NY)
I would have a lot more sympathy if these same truck drivers hadn't gouged my small business during the pandemic. The rates that I had to pay both at the LA and NY ports were astronomical, and we had to beg truckers to go pick up our goods. What goes around comes around.
SolarCat (Up Here)
@Barbara Barran Was it the truckers, or the Dray Alliances?
JC (In the Middle)
@Barbara Barran I second that, totally agree. Amplified by third world infrastructure.
Gregg Seltzer (SoCal)
Regardless the pursuit, we should cheer for everyone to make it.
Sandra (Ohio)
In this area appliance stores have a four to six week wait to get in stock, paid for items on a truck. They own the trucks and pay the drivers. The crews work days. They are home at night. Local runs. Seems thee is miss match between need for drivers and available drivers geographically. If/when the appliance stores catch up on deliveries and or installs who nows what happens with the crews? Supply chain disruptions due to Covid is causing so much distress. The possible freight rail strike may happen. Some of the unions involved have voted down the tentative agreement of September. I hope things are resolved without more disruption to workers and customers.
Ignatz (Upper Ruralia)
Ole Miss is drying up ,and last week the media reported not enough truck drivers to move cargo previously moved on the river. Which story is correct?
MostlyHarmless (CA)
@Ignatz You did read the part of this story where he is now only doing work locally, yes? Different regions have different demands. Is this news to you?
Ignatz (Upper Ruralia)
@MostlyHarmless Sometimes you have to move to where the work is. I would have liked a factory to open across the street when I was 20 so I wouldn't have ever had to move to follow work, but alas, life doesn't work that way. What's the solution for him? Sit and pine for a job that isn't there any longer? Truckers are going to be needed force if there's not a LOT of rain in that watershed soon. Grain, Oil, Wood products..... Sorry. Local is nice if you can get it. If you can't....move to where the work is.
SolarCat (Up Here)
@Ignatz ...and then the work moves...
jesse riley (little rock)
The patience required seems phenomenal and maddening, all the long hours killing time in barren, industrial worksites.
d (USA)
I admire Mr. Jackson for being there for his family. He made choices to be home at night, and be available for his daughter. The market has unfortunately changed in a way to make this difficult. Could there be other types of loads to haul that may take him further for a short period of time, until his current niche picks up again? There's also a proliferation of load apps for truckers. There may be business on others. But please, the thought of driving one of these rigs while looking at a phone makes me shudder because I know too well what can happen. Please, don't use it while driving.
Mtnman1963 (MD)
He's a businessman. He saw an opportunity, took it, and expanded by buying two more trucks and hiring drivers during the good times. Now times are harder. He has choices to make. How does this differ from tens of thousands of businesses that go through this all the time? How does this rate a NYT article, splashed with references to his daughter and other heart-tuggers? It's not personal. It's just business.
Jim ODonnell (Miami)
@Mtnman1963 I think it's a journalistic / stylistic choice in how the author (or the paper) wishes to communicate the info. In this case, the paper has chosen to illustrate how the ebbs and flows of the supply chain can disrupt the stability of Jackson's small business and the resulting impact on his family. In another paper, or on another page of this paper, a different article can present the same basic info by reporting that a certain pricing index or other macro metric has risen or dropped by some fraction. Some guys might read about the index and understand intrinsically there are thousands of Jacksons out there struggling to cover their costs. Alternatively, I read that he's got a small business with two employees and a young family and is hoping to close on this house, and I fully understand how this impacts him and those like him. In this format, the story resonates with me. This approach might not be your preferred angle, but that's the answer to your question why this rates an article.
Francois (Montreal)
NYT is not a trade publication. This article didn't claim to be an in-depth look into the field, backed by stats etc. It's a "day in the life" article, like there are every day. Time will tell whether he made the right business decision. But we already know that he is a good man. That is the story I read.
Mike (Rural NY)
@Jim ODonnell Excellent comment, perhaps nuance isn't totally dead in the comments section.
Don Leche (Brightwaters NY)
Depressing example of the digital world that controls our work life. Keep checking your app in hopes that the algorithm that calculates the most needy worker closet by for the cheapest price finds you. Land a gig just in time to miss your important life events like your child’s graduation. “This is what you signed up for”. Definitely not. Thought it would be different. Unfortunately these are the types of jobs that were good for a while when unions were strong. Now these same workers who would benefit from union representation are voting for a regime that is out to digitally enslave them. The costs of slavery is much higher than the cost of keeping a population hanging by a thread.
jesse riley (little rock)
@Don Leche "This is is what you signed up for..." where "This" equals, hmm, "poverty," or "divorce," or "depression," maybe the boss should have been more specific.
Stewart (Michigan)
Port trucking is a classic case of competitive market conditions, no monopoly power, and hence pricing is set by overall demand and supply conditions. There are low barriers to entering the business so higher returns can be quickly wiped away when new operators enter the trucker supply pool. The highest cost operators will disappear quickly during downturns. Of course if the port truckers conspire to create less competitive and more profitable supply and demand conditions the anti-trust laws will be used against them. The courts and congress only approve of the major oligopolies and monopolies regardless of the law and their capitalist system lip service. Anybody in a highly competitive market experiences the same lack of control over supply and demand. Noticed the profits and stability among the few professional sports franchise kingdoms?
mr. davidson (Pittsburgh PA)
I do this ,but the port in So Cal is notorious for driver problems ,every year it's something else.Now there are major companies hiring in Ontario /Riverside to run eastern states and back. Even company drivers can be home weekends or every 2 weeks and make easily $1500/wk and more.Company drivers have no expenses or fuel costs and you can save.Even lease purchase options pay real well,but to make money in trucking you need miles ,alot of miles and saving that's the key.
Maria (Brooklyn)
We should be diversifying the transportation system in the US, and shifting at least some of the cargo transport to water and rail. Reliance solely on cargo trucks means that besides continuing with the abysmal car-centric infrastructure, the system will face this rollercoaster with every disruption. Not enough truck drivers - backed-up ports - too many drivers - everyone suffers... We will keep reading these types of stories.
Daft (Continental America)
@Maria Idk if you are aware but Mississippi river levels are super low, rail workers are about to go on strike unless unions come to terms with oligopoly railroad barons.
BabbleFish (Salem Oregon)
I wish he would not check his phone while driving. Very distracting especially if he gets a job offer. Trucks squish drivers in cars when the truck driver loses focus on the task at hand which should be driving responsibly.
Daft (Continental America)
I am confused, wasn't it only few months ago we were told about shortage of truck drivers. NYT even showed us insight into driving schools and how rules were being loosened to make way for new drivers. What gives now. Times it seems cannot keep up with the fast-changing global supply chain and appear to be on the back foot with these stories. Can the times for once focus on positives instead of being all gloom. I feel bad for Mr. Jackson as he seems to be a really hardworking person trying to make a living.
Jim ODonnell (Miami)
@Daft Well if there was shortage of drivers reported a few months ago, and a glut of drivers now reported (in some places / some segments of the distro chain), maybe the Times is actually keeping up with the fast-changing global supply chain. I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that things that used to change slowly are changing more quickly now in the wake of the pandemic and all the disruption it caused to logistics. And with these drivers working as independent contractors, they are on the reactive end of the supply chain, the impact of its bumps and ripples are magnified for these guys . . . that's what I'm gathering from the article.
John (Chicago, IL)
@Daft Perhaps the shortage still exists for long-haul drivers (what the subject of this article used to do), but not for short-haul port drivers (what the subject of the article is doing now).
MonsP (Atlanta,Ga)
California should lay off the diesel taxes, those prices are insane.
Dan C (Los Angeles)
@MonsP: I live there and pay high taxes on gas without complaint. Those taxes pay to repair our roads and encourage fuel saving efficiencies. I also pay more for a burger than you do in Georgia to support a well deserved higher minimum wage for the guys behind the counter. I am well aware that everything costs more in California than for my sister in Alabama, but I wouldn't set foot in such a place.
Mtnman1963 (MD)
Dare I ask if he saved his extra income during the fat past couple of years . . . . ?
Jim ODonnell (Miami)
@Mtnman1963 I would seem he saved some of it, per the recent purchase of the 4BR in Riverside . . . not the highest profile address in southern Cal but expensive real estate for sure. The article mentions the current downturn has him stressed over the approaching closing costs.
Francois (Montreal)
He invested in launching his business and buying additional trucks.
Mtnman1963 (MD)
Investment in depreciating assets. Not saving.
Barbara Morrell (Denver)
By the time I finished reading this excellently thorough article, my stomach was in knots. I so admire this man’s perseverance; I hope he succeeds. His daughter is a lucky girl.
L.K. (Germany)
My deepest respect for Mr. Jackson. It is inspiring to read such stories of real everyday heroes who are fighting against the odds.
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