N.J. company buys California port truck operator accused of cheating drivers

Curtis Tate
View Comments
Alfredo Arambula, a Mexican immigrant and former driver at K&R Transportation, told reporters he lost everything after breaking his foot on the job in 2013.

A New Jersey supply chain company has purchased a California truck operator that has been the subject of lawsuits and wage complaints filed by dozens of truck drivers who allege they were cheated out of fair pay after signing lease-to-own contracts for their rigs.

NFI Industries, based in Cherry Hill, announced Monday that it had acquired  California Cartage, a logistics company based in Long Beach, Calif., whose trucks serve the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest in the country.

A USA TODAY Network investigation published in June found that California Cartage affiliates were among those that for nearly a decade had forced truck drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford.

INVESTIGATION:Port truckers forced into debt, worked past exhaustion, left with nothing

RETAIL'S ROLE:Retail giants enable port trucker exploitation

The stories shed light on a little-known consequence of a truck-replacement program intended to reduce emissions at Southern California ports by retiring older, dirtier trucks.

Since 2012, at least 30 drivers who worked for California Cartage affiliates have filed lawsuits in civil court and wage complaints with the California Labor Commission, alleging they had been cheated of fair pay after signing lease-to-own contracts.

Former workers there testified that the contracts were not explained or translated. The vast majority of the drivers are immigrants, and English is not their first language.

Some drivers found themselves working up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, in order to keep up with the truck payments. Unable to afford the expenses and a living wage, many said they were forced to quit, leaving behind the truck and all they’d paid into it.

Reyes Castellanos, 58, has gallstones and no health insurance, because he is labeled an independent contractor instead of an employee. Near-constant pain causes him to wince repeatedly as he talks from the cab of his truck.

Reyes Castellanos, a 58-year-old driver for K&R Transportation, a division of California Cartage, told USA TODAY that in 2015, he took home only $21,000 of his $94,000 gross income, after making his truck payments to his employer. He and his wife had to choose between making house payments and buying food. They gave up their house.

WORKER PUNISHED:Company fires trucker who spoke about 20-hour workdays

CHANGES MADE:Costco drops trucking company accused of labor violations

So far the labor commissioner has awarded $690,000 to drivers at California Cartage affiliates, while most of the other cases are ongoing or have settled in secret.

Even though some of their claims exceed $100,000, settlements as low as $2,000 have been offered, according to confidential letters obtained by the USA TODAY Network.

NFI provides retailers, food and technology companies and even sports teams with transportation and distribution services. Its clients include Ocean Spray, Lowe's, Subaru of America, Rent-A-Center, Express Scripts and the Philadelphia 76ers.

Amber Burruezo, a spokeswoman for NFI, did not immediately respond to questions about the complaints against California Cartage and whether the combined company would continue the lease-to-own program for its truckers.

California Cartage declined to comment for USA TODAY Network’s investigation.

California Cartage owner and Chairman Bob Curry Sr. spearheaded the lease-to-own program, which enabled the company to amass the largest fleet of clean trucks in Southern California. 

In a statement this week, Curry said NFI is "a perfect cultural fit" for the company and its affiliates.

The Port of New York and New Jersey also has a truck-replacement program aimed at reducing emissions at the East Coast's largest port. Drivers can obtain a grant that covers 25 percent of the purchase price of a replacement vehicle or a low-interest loan that covers 75 percent of the purchase price.

Labor advocacy groups say California Cartage is one of the few companies with the clout and market share to fix the chronic problems plaguing the port trucking industry.

“If there’s anyone with the power to change this, it’s them,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, a former organizer with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. LAANE is affiliated with the Teamsters union, which has staged a number of strikes at California Cartage companies.  

View Comments