SCOTUS Considers Whether Trucking Companies Can Dodge Worker Lawsuits in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira

Should truck drivers whose wages are stolen lose their day in court—and be forced to submit to arbitration—simply because their company calls them contractors and not employees?

Washington, D.C.—Following is a statement by Ceilidh Gao, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, on the case New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, which was argued today before the Supreme Court. In this case, the Justices will decide whether trucking companies can dodge lawsuits from drivers simply by labeling them as independent contractors instead of employees. The companies argue that this label removes workers from the Federal Arbitration Act’s “contracts of employment” exception for workers engaged in interstate commerce.”  

“Fundamentally, this case is about whether companies that routinely violate the law—in this case, by underpaying their workers who are called ‘independent contractors’—can use that lawbreaking to deny working people access to the courts.

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“At the center of this case is an industry so exploitative that experts call it ‘sweatshops on wheels’ and ‘sharecropping on wheels.’

“Drivers like Dominic Oliveira work for trucking companies and deliver the goods we buy at retailers such as Home Depot and Target.

“Most port truck drivers are unlawfully misclassified as ‘independent contractors’ instead of ‘employees’—an arrangement that deprives drivers of basic workplace protections, puts all the expenses onto the drivers, and keeps many of them trapped in debt.

“Drivers like Mr. Oliveira often work long hours only to find that their paycheck at the end of the week—after a slew of company deductions—is well below minimum wage, or even negative, meaning they owe the company money. If drivers stop working, the company can seize their trucks, which are often leased from the company. It’s no surprise that a Pulitzer-nominated investigation calls the industry modern-day indentured servitude.

“Workers have sued the trucking companies over these pay violations, and in this case, the Court will decide whether or not these companies can avoid facing workers in court simply by labeling them ‘contractors’ and forcing them to sign arbitration clauses.

“If the Supreme Court rules for the bosses in this case, it will send a clear message: that big companies that break the law get to decide if and when the rules apply to them.

“NELP filed an amicus brief in this case, on behalf of NELP, the Teamsters International Union, the Economic Policy Institute, and the National Employment Lawyers Association. Our brief explains why an adverse ruling would be terrible not only for workers, but also for the larger public and for law-abiding employers.

“When low-road companies like New Prime unlawfully classify their workers as independent contractors, it imposes huge costs on all of us. If the Supreme Court rules against the workers, it would create further incentives for companies to misclassify their employees as independent contractors. Such a perverse outcome would be an affront to the basic fairness American workers demand.”

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