New National Labor Relations Board Trucking Decision: Another Step Towards Safer Roads

A recent ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) took another step in making our roads and highways safer for daily travel.  At the beginning of March 2020, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge issued a decision in International Bridge Transport and The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 21-CA-157647.  Intermodal Bridge Transport (IBT) is one of North America’s leading intermodal trucking companies, with operations throughout the country.   In the most recent case, the issue before the NLRB was whether truck drivers who lease their trucks from IBT were independent contractors or employees.    

In March, the NLRB rejected IBT’s claims that the drivers they hire are merely independent contractors with no subordinate relationship to IBT. The NLRB ruled that the drivers who operate under lease agreements with IBT are employees, not independent contractors because the drivers have little opportunity to control their routes, hours, or profit and loss. 

Why is the NLRB’s decision important in terms of our safety?  

It’s actually pretty simple.  If the drivers are found to be employees, they are seen as “agents” of the company when they are out on our roads under the law. Then, the large trucking companies and freight brokers that are making big profits may bear some responsibility when the driver makes a mistake and someone is killed or seriously injured.

This ruling is important because companies like IBT play a large role in putting trucks on the roadway.  They tell the driers where to go and when they need to be there.  Often, the company fines for late deliveries or pickups.  They put pressure on drivers to push themselves to the limits.  As such, companies like IBT should bear responsibility when the drivers they push cause injury and damages to others. 

Trucks are different than passenger vehicles.  They are bigger, heavier, and take longer to stop than the vehicles most of us drive every day.  These trucks barrel down the highway at high rates of speed and can weigh up to 80,000 pounds fully loaded.  When they are involved in a crash, it is rarely a small collision or fender bender.  When something goes wrong, it can and often does have devastating consequences. 

Moreover, many of these drivers are paid by the mile and are under pressure by the company that hired them to log as many miles in as little time as possible.  This results in truck drivers speeding to meet their mandated schedules or exceeding the driving time allowed under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations that prevent truck drivers from driving while fatigued or impaired.   The federal regulations forbid motor carriers from imposing a schedule that requires a driver to speed or cut corners.  But it happens anyway because small owner-operators depend on large freight brokers to make their living.

New NRLB Decision Also Holds Trucking Brokers Financially Responsible

Many of the semi trucks on our roads are contractually labeled “independent contractors.”  Sometimes drivers will even sign a contract to that effect.  Many small mom-and-pop trucking companies have just the minimum amount of insurance allowable under the law: $1 million.  While this may sound like a large amount of money, semi-trucks cause far more damage than we see in a typical car crash.  Truck accidents result often cause massive physical injuries, often to multiple people who are forced to share the limited insurance policy available. 

What’s worse is that many small trucking companies have no assets to speak of.  As a result, our clients are often faced with the choice of accepting the limited insurance proceeds available or trying to bankrupt an independent business, with no guarantee of full payment in any event. 

Often, large trucking brokers use the “independent contractor” label as nothing more than a smokescreen. These multinational freight brokers hire these small trucking companies, arrange their pickup and deliveries, and dictate the terms of the relationship.   These brokers have no problem accepting the lion’s share of the profits on the load, but accept none of the responsibility for when things go wrong.  The “independent contractor” label allows them to protect their assets from financial accountability.

As long as that’s the case, large freight brokers have no incentive to implement stronger and consistent safety programs or to ensure that the drivers they hire adhere to federal regulations enacted to keep the motoring public safe.  

Why should they if their drivers are “independent contractors” and they can’t be held accountable for failing to properly vet, train, or monitor those drivers?  Instituting safety programs and protections costs money and that eats into profits.  Passing responsibility to someone else is easy.  Savings over safety.  Profits over people. It happens all too often. 

This Decision Will Make Our Roadways Safer

Whenever we go out on the roadway, we rely on each other to follow the rules of the road and keep each other safe.  We expect and rely on each other to stop at stop signs, follow the direction of traffic lights, and drive on the correct side of the road.  Why should trucking companies and brokers be any different? 

We should be able to expect the companies making the most money on the backs of these drivers to ensure that the drivers they hire and employ are properly trained. They need to make sure that their drivers have the opportunity to get proper rest and do not feel pressure to break local and state traffic laws to get to their destination on time. 

We all use the roads.  We depend on trucking companies and freight brokers to, at the very least, do what the law dictates is required to keep the motoring public safe.  The NLRB’s recent decision is a sensible step towards accountability and protecting everyone who uses our roadways.

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