Roberto Aqino sits waiting in the cab of his cargo truck on Atlantic Blvd in Commerce. Today, like most days since the beginning of the recession, he has no cargo to move.
“My biggest wish is to open a restaurant,” he says. While the recession is technically over, the prospects are not much better than back in 2008. Aqino does not see a future in owning and operating his own truck, and neither does he see himself losing his autonomy by going to work for a big trucking company.
At one time, business was good. Hauling cargo, either locally or from the ports, used to pay the bills for his home in South Los Angeles. Jobs would keep him busy six out of seven days of the week, he says.
But for the last three years, a regular week has meant a couple of hours on Monday, and a few hours on Tuesday. The rest is spent parked on a commercial street in Commerce, near potential jobs, and his take home pay these days usually amounts to $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
Aqino says it is better than sitting at home. And in any case, the bank is in the process of foreclosing on his home.
Cargo-less trucks could be seen parked all around Commerce where many industrial businesses are located. This is where the jobs are, and things are picking up, but not enough to make it worth their while, drivers say.
At the 7-11 on Washington Blvd, truck driver Richard Estrada is ready to retire. He blames Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and thinks there is an effort to push owner-operators like him out of business to make way for larger trucking companies.
Working for one of those companies means they get less respect, and less pay. The point of becoming a truck driver is that one could pay for a house, raise a family, pay for their children’s education, and still save up for a rainy day, said Estrada, who himself lives in Whittier.
Now it’s just another low-paying job with no future, he says.
Meanwhile, environmental regulations seem to be the number one topic that raises the ire of many of the drivers. Those regulations only seem to favor big companies that can afford the upgrades, they say, and have sealed the fate for owner-operators like them.
Aqino called the PM filters he was required to install onto his truck to reduce harmful emissions a “$13,000 piece of crap” that only lasts a couple of years. He already pays insurance, taxes, registration fees, and maintenance costs for his own truck.
Meanwhle, Estrada says the school buses his children take spew smoke that is blacker, and worse-smelling, than anything that comes out of their own trucks.
He has been in the business now for 23 years. “I like being a truck driver, but anyway, I have to throw it away now.”