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

Date: Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Source: The New York Times

Just before 4 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, the sky still black save for the reddish glow of the freeway, Marshawn Jackson rolls over in his bed at his home in Southern California and reaches for his iPhone.

He clicks on an app used by truck drivers seeking assignments. The notification he absorbs is both familiar and disheartening: “No jobs available.”

Mr. Jackson is paid per delivery. No work means no income. His day is already booked with two assignments, but the rest of his week is dead. Over the next 15 hours, he refreshes the app constantly, desperate to secure more jobs — an exercise in vigorous futility.

He refreshes after he pulls his tractor-trailer into a nearby storage yard to pick up an empty shipping container, and again while he rolls down the freeway, toward the Port of Los Angeles — one hand on the wheel, one hand on his phone.

He refreshes as he drops off the empty box, and a dozen more times while he waits for a crane to deposit another container on the chassis behind his rig, this one loaded with toys from factories in Asia. He refreshes while he fuels his truck.

Each time, the same result.

“You reach a point where you’re like, ‘Man, am I even making money?’” Mr. Jackson says. “Is it worth even getting up in the morning?”

The sudden disappearance of work is an unexpected turn for Mr. Jackson, 37, and the rest of Southern California’s so-called dray operators — the drivers who transport shipping containers between the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the sprawl of warehouses filling out the Inland Empire to the east.

For much of the pandemic, as the worst public health crisis in a century tore at daily life, these drivers were inundated with work, even while they contended with excruciating delays at the ports. Americans sequestered in their homes filled bedrooms with office furniture and basements with exercise equipment, summoning record volumes of goods from factories in Asia. The flow overwhelmed the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the gateway for roughly two-fifths of the nation’s imports.

As dozens of ships sat at anchor miles off the coast, awaiting their chance to unload, dray operators like Mr. Jackson idled for hours on land before they could enter port gates. They waited hours more to pick up their containers, and yet again before they could drop them off at warehouses.

These days, the lines are mostly gone, and loading and unloading goes smoothly. But the same truck drivers who endured the worst of the Great Supply Chain Disruption are now suffering another affliction as the docks reverts to a semblance of normalcy. The frenzied chaos that dominated the first years of the pandemic has been replaced by an uneasy stillness — not enough work.

Incoming shipments are diminishing at Southern California’s two largest ports. This is partly because American demand for kitchen appliances, video game consoles and lawn furniture is finally waning. It also reflects how major retailers are bypassing Southern California, instead shipping to East Coast destinations like Savannah, Ga., to avoid potential upheaval as West Coast dockworkers face off with port managers over a new contract.

Mr. Jackson’s journey through a maze of traffic-choked freeways exemplifies the bewildering, often-perilous road confronting tens of millions of workers in a global economy still grappling with the volatile effects of the pandemic along with soaring inflation.

As central banks raise interest rates to choke off demand for goods and services in an effort to lower consumer prices, they are reducing income for legions of workers who are paid per assignment. The situation is especially fraught for the nation’s 75,000 dray operators and other foot soldiers of the supply chain.

Dockworkers, who wield equipment to load and unload containers at ports, are protected by fierce and disciplined unions that have succeeded in commanding some of the higher wages in blue collar American life. Dray operators work primarily as independent contractors, buying their own fuel and insurance.

Their status leaves them subject to constant shifts in economic fortune. In good times, like last year, dray operators command whatever the market must pay to keep them rolling. In lean times, they are guaranteed nothing.

As he navigates five lanes of traffic on the way to the port, Mr. Jackson dons headphones to conduct a series of phone calls.

He talks to his wife, sharing worries that they might not be able to close on their purchase of a newly built home. His income has fluctuated wildly in recent months. The mortgage company is demanding more documents, filling him with dread.

He speaks with two men who drive a pair of trucks that he owns. He coordinates their schedules and helps them navigate unfamiliar shipping terminals. He frets that they may not bring in enough to cover the expenses on his other rigs.

He passes billboards for beachfront homes in Baja, flights to Las Vegas, spa resorts. He wonders when he will be able to take his wife and 13-year-old daughter on a vacation.

He contemplates the tenuous nature of American upward mobility, the forces tearing at the life he has constructed.

“The way we’re living is hard times right now,” Mr. Jackson says. “You’ve still got to smile through it. You’ve still got to be positive. But, man, I’m dealing with a lot right now.”

Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Mr. Jackson says he embraced trucking as a form of liberation from a community he described as chronically short of good jobs and bedeviled by gang violence.

“You get used to seeing things,” he says. “All you can do is pray you can make it out.”

Growing up, he helped his grandmother with a hair care products business, packing boxes in a warehouse when he was only 10. But when the company failed in the aftermath of the long recession that began in 2007, Mr. Jackson sought a reliable way to support his partner and their then-infant daughter.

A friend told him there were good jobs in long-haul trucking. He signed up for a training program arranged by Swift, a giant in the industry.

He hopped the Greyhound to Phoenix for the three-week program, sharing a motel room full of scorpions with two other trainees. They practiced on aging rigs that lacked air conditioning despite summer heat reaching 117 degrees.

He was soon earning $1,000 a week hauling trailers from a Dollar Store distribution center in Southern California to Phoenix and back.

But as the routes grew longer, the strains on his family life intensified. He was hauling refrigerated trailers full of lettuce from the fields of central California to a distribution center in North Carolina. He was routinely away for two and three weeks at a stretch.

When his daughter graduated from kindergarten in 2016, he pleaded with the company to schedule him to be home, just for that day. One dispatcher — a gruff, former Marine — mocked him.

“This is what you signed up for,” he said.

Mr. Jackson did not make it to the ceremony.

“I felt like I was letting my whole family down,” he says. “It changed my whole outlook.”

He drove back to California and turned in the keys on the truck he leased from the company. He used savings to buy a used rig and began picking up routes as an independent contractor, limiting his time away to no more than three days.

Then he figured out how to sleep at home every night. He began working in and out of the port.

He eventually bought the other trucks and took on the pair of drivers, paying them a share of the proceeds on the loads they deliver.

“It was one of those things where you’ve got to take a risk,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I bet it all on myself? It was something I knew I could do.”

He and his family moved into a rented apartment in the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, and then into a modest house they bought just off the freeway. They vacationed in Mexico and Hawaii.

His daughter’s name, Bailey Jackson, is painted in white letters on the door of his rig. She is the reason he keeps rolling, he says. He takes her shopping — for clothes, for books.

“That girl is always reading,” he says. “Some days, she’ll finish more than one book.”

This year, he signed off on buying a four-bedroom home with space for a swimming pool in a quiet community carved into the desert in Riverside County.

It was a five-minute drive from the yard where he parks his truck.

It was a lifetime away from South Central Los Angeles.

Though the Inland Empire lies roughly 60 miles from the ports, its clusters of warehouses are an extension of the docks.

Here, major retailers stash the bounty delivered from Asia via container ships. Distribution centers supply consumers across much of the American West.

In the same way that massive slaughterhouses turned Chicago into a rail hub in the late 19th century, the Inland Empire has burgeoned into a dominant center of warehousing in the age of big box retail and e-commerce.

At 5:43 a.m., the sun still a vague suggestion to the east, Mr. Jackson sits behind the wheel of his enormous blue Kenworth tractor. He guides it into a Shell station and climbs down to the pavement.

Diesel is selling for $6.19 a gallon, an eye-popping number. He puts $100 in the tank, enough to get to Los Angeles to drop off the empty trailer he has picked up this morning from a warehouse for a home appliance company.

Fifteen minutes later, as the sun glimmers through hazy skies, he is headed west on I-60.

He wonders what the day will bring.

A year ago, he could take his pick from scores of jobs at the Dray Alliance, the online platform where he secures assignments. Not anymore. Whenever a new job appears, he clicks immediately, knowing that dozens of other drivers are also keeping vigil on the site.

The uncertainties of the trade are wearying. Three times in the past week, Mr. Jackson has wound up on so-called dry runs — journeys aborted because of a glitch. Sometimes, the paperwork is not in order. Other times, a pickup appointment has been made incorrectly. He heads home with a $100 fee from the shipper. It barely covers the cost of gas.

Last year, when dozens of container ships were waiting their turns to unload, he sometimes sat parked in lines for as long as five hours to pick up and drop off, even as the Dray Alliance’s app steered him to jobs with the least congestion. He would grab his neck pillow and pass out in the front seat.

Now, no app can redress a basic reduction in demand. Not only are jobs scarce, but compensation has fallen.

Less than a year ago, Mr. Jackson was earning about $700 to haul a container from San Bernardino to the port of Los Angeles, a 70-mile journey that can take more than two hours when traffic is bad. This morning’s job brings $500, even though the price of fuel has increased.

Still, every job draws fierce interest, because drivers are stuck with bills.

“They know we’ve got to keep working,” Mr. Jackson says. “That’s how they take advantage. We’ve got to survive.”

At 7:20, a vivid sun gathering force, Mr. Jackson pulls into the container storage yard near the port, rumbling over bumpy pavement. He backs into a space between two other containers, steps out of the cab, and turns a crank handle to lower the landing gear on the chassis. Then he detaches the box.

He quickly finds the empty container he is picking up. But he notices that the chassis below it is painted pale yellow — an indication that it is old. This could trigger an inspection.

He drives to port, entering the gates of APM Terminals at 7:40. The terminal is controlled by Maersk, a Danish company that is one of the two largest container shipping operations on earth.

The security guard waves him through. A few minutes later, a dockworker driving a top loader — a machine that lifts containers — motions for Mr. Jackson to pull up to an appointed space so he can pluck the box off the rig and add it to a stack.

Mr. Jackson scans the app on his phone for his next destination: space E162, the letters painted white on the dock. He pulls in tight, his passenger-side mirror grazing the container to his right. A crane lifts a box off the stacks and deposits it onto his chassis. It lands with a thunderous boom.

The morning is proceeding so smoothly that Mr. Jackson indulges visions of dropping the container, at a Mattel warehouse, with time enough to spare for a proper meal — his first of the day — before heading back to the port.

But then a dockworker notices the old chassis. He diverts him to a special maintenance area. There, Mr. Jackson sits for more than an hour while a mechanic administers a repair.

He pulls in to a truck stop in Long Beach, and adds another $400 worth of diesel to his tank.

He walks across the lot, stepping between other tractor-trailers, on his way to the restroom — his first pit stop since dawn.

One of his drivers calls to report that he has accepted an assignment from Dray Alliance to drop off an empty container at the port, and is now headed back to the Inland Empire, pulling nothing.

Mr. Jackson is distressed. He had arranged for the driver to pick up a load at the port this evening. He should have waited to do both jobs on a single journey. Instead, he is burning gas on two round trips — at Mr. Jackson’s expense.

“How does that cover the cost of me paying you?” Mr. Jackson asks. “The rates are down. It’s slow, bro’.”

At 11 in the morning, he is on the freeway again, headed back to the Inland Empire to drop off the container. He shovels a handful of popcorn into his mouth. Then he puts the bag on his console, and picks up his iPhone to refresh. No jobs.

Fat clouds hang low over the Arrowhead, a landmark notched in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, as Mr. Jackson arrives at the Mattel warehouse just after noon. He drops the container, picks up an empty, and returns to the freeway, headed back to the port for the second half of his long day.

Many truck drivers obsessively consume caffeine, perpetually fearful that they might otherwise descend into a dangerous state known as highway hypnosis.

Mr. Jackson abstains. “I drink a lot of this,” he says, taking a swig from a bottle of Fiji water.

To stay alert, he relies on the vibrations of his $6,000 sound system. He cranks up the dial on an old Isley Brothers classic, “Work to Do.” “I’m taking care of business, woman can’t you see. I’ve gotta make it for you, and gotta make it for me.”

He rolls past a billboard for Fastevict.com, past tent cities full of homeless people, past self-storage units.

He makes it to the port in time for a meal before his 3 p.m. pickup.

He winds through the cracked streets of Long Beach, looking for a curb long enough to park a tractor-trailer. He finds a spot around the corner from the truck stop. He waits for an Uber Eats driver, who arrives bearing a Chipotle bowl — brown rice, chicken and avocado.

He drops the container, picks up another, and parks again in Long Beach, taking a nap in the back in the cab while waiting for rush hour traffic to ease.

At 6:30 in the evening, twilight settling over the parched land, he rolls toward home while again on the phone with his wife.

The mortgage underwriter does not understand the division between Mr. Jackson’s personal finances and his business — a blurry line. The closing appears in danger. (He will eventually pull it off, though that will leave him staring at mortgage payments with diminished income.)

Darkness fills his cab. Brake lights flicker ahead. He and his wife struggle to understand where their road leads.

“People are like, ‘If you get through this point, you’ll be OK,’” Mr. Jackson says. “And I’m like, ‘How long is this point going to last?’”


[Read from the original source.]