Hector Padilla comes from a long line of Southern California truckers, but it wasn’t until going to school and dabbling in aviation that he decided to follow in the family tradition. “I realized my dad was making way more money than I was, with less effort,” he says.
Now 36, Padilla owns his rig and describes himself as an independent contractor, soliciting business from multiple trucking companies and load boards. He handles a mix of truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL) business, hauling both dry and refrigerated freight within about a 50-mile radius around Los Angeles and Ontario, California.
One of his main sources of business is the load board of Next Trucking, founded in 2015 by Lidia Yan and Elton Chung. Padilla likes the tool because it streamlines the process of accepting a load (or, for that matter, rejecting it) and getting paid for it within days. He supplements that platform with additional work on behalf of major motor carriers such as Swift Transportation Co., Knight Transportation and J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.
To Padilla, being an independent driver is worth the headache of cobbling together jobs from multiple sources. He’s constantly having to weigh the pros and cons of hauling for traditional trucking outfits versus relying on opportunities presented by the growing breed of electronic freight brokers. “One of the biggest changes [in recent years] is trying to figure out what would work for me — building a day as a one-man show,” he says.
Padilla shares with all truckers, independent or not, the challenge of making a living in a business marked by seesawing freight rates. In 2018, rates were at an all-time high, then took a sudden dive in 2019. Many truckers didn’t survive the plunge. Making matters even worse was the fallout from the U.S.-China trade war, which affected the international cargoes on which so many Southern California logistics providers depend.
The biggest blow of all came in 2020, with arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and consequent temporary shutdown of factory production. By the time the virus hit, says Padilla, many truckers “were just barely staying afloat.”
Fortunately, they won temporary relief through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, as well the extension of unemployment benefits to independent contractors. Then came an explosion in consumer spending on groceries and other crucial household items, as public gatherings were shut down and sheltering-in-place rules were imposed by state and local governments. The result was another record high for local freight volumes and rates.
Truck rates have fallen slightly since then, and Padilla is bracing for another year of ups and downs in 2021. Much depends on whether the latest coronavirus relief bill can get consumers spending again, he says.
Other problems are endemic to the trucking industry in good times and bad. Chief among them in Southern California are the severe delays that drayage drivers face in picking up containers and chassis at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “It’s such a hassle at the moment that I haven’t done it in almost seven months,” says Padilla. “It’s just not worth it to me.”
In recent years, the Southern California drayage scene has also been racked by controversy over the employment status of drivers. The Teamsters and other interests have repeatedly attempted without success to ban independent, non-union drivers from accessing that business at all. At the same time, some trucking companies serving the ports have raised wages and benefits, in an effort to lure independents into full-time employment.
Padilla has resisted all such temptations. He says Southern California offers plenty of opportunities for independent drivers, as long as they’re savvy enough to make use of them. Those with “the old mentality,” who might in the past have worked with just one carrier or broker, don’t know how to maneuver between load boards, he says.
“It’s a big switch to their paradigm,” Padilla adds. “They tend to stick to what they know. They just want to do the job, close their doors and go home. They don’t want to be looking for loads on different boards, to put together a day.”
Environmental issues have hit the industry hard. Commercial truckers operating in California have had to constantly upgrade their equipment to keep pace with ever-tightening state restrictions on vehicle emissions. Drivers have spent thousands of dollars on diesel particulate filters and other aftermarket devices, for trucks that will be obsolete in just a few years.
Padilla views the situation in a positive light. He’s waiting for the coming of electric trucks. That, of course, would require him to buy yet another brand-new rig, but “the gas savings by itself is going to pay for the truck.” What’s more, the state of California is likely to help out by partially subsidizing the purchase cost.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Padilla says. “You get great mileage, fewer moving parts, and it’s environmentally conscious.”
For all the challenges that truckers face, Padilla is cautiously optimistic about the coming year. “Anything can happen,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to be like 2019. Volumes in the port and on rail are still really high. And the vaccine is already creating hope.”
Business in the early months of 2021 could be further spurred by the latest economic relief bill, he says. “But I would break the year into parts. After the first quarter, I don’t know.”
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