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Truckers hope protest over unpaid hours and lack of restrooms will spark a Permian Basin labor movement

Cesar Adrian Gonzalez Lopez in Monahans on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Truckers in the Permian Basin are protesting against unpaid hours behind the wheel and a lack of access to bathrooms at drilling sites.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Cesar Adrian Gonzalez Lopez in Monahans on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Truckers in the Permian Basin are protesting against unpaid hours behind the wheel and a lack of access to bathrooms at drilling sites.

MONAHANS — Low wages and working conditions that truck drivers describe as degrading have sparked an organized labor movement in the Permian Basin, a historic first for the nation’s busiest oil field.

About a dozen truckers and local environmental activists descended Monday on three West Texas cities — Kermit, Mohanans and Odessa — and blocked entrances to sand mines with a row of cars to hand out fliers listing their demands to other truckers.

Workers said the one-day demonstration, which slowed production in the nation’s largest oil supplier, was a sequel to a similar protest last year that was largely ignored and a warning of the steps they’ll take to be heard.

The truckers are demanding to be paid for the long hours they spend waiting to load and unload frac sand — or sand used during fracking to separate the rock, prop it open and prevent it from closing — more restroom facilities near loading areas and the ability to negotiate pay rates based on driving times and cargo weight, said Billy Randel, a lifelong trucker and organizer with the Truckers Movement for Justice.

“There are no bathrooms for the men and women to keep this economy running out here to use while sitting from two to four to 12 to 36 hours at the wellheads,” Randel said. “There's no facility to go to the bathroom. You know how dehumanizing that is for either a man or a woman to have to use a bucket? This is insanity.”

Federal law mandates that drivers take a ten-hour break before beginning their shifts and may not drive for more than 14 hours straight afterward. After driving for eight uninterrupted hours, they must take a 30-minute break. And truckers may only drive for 70 hours within eight consecutive workdays, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The law says nothing about access to amenities like restrooms.

Members of the Truckers Movement for Justice flag down semi-truck drivers to share educational and promotional material as they protest outside of the Capital Sand mine on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Monahans. The group, led by Billy Randel, protested across the Permian Basin Monday, calling for better wages and working conditions within the trucking industry.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Members of the Truckers Movement for Justice flag down semi-truck drivers to share educational and promotional material as they protest outside of the Capital Sand mine on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Monahans. The group, led by Billy Randel, protested across the Permian Basin Monday, calling for better wages and working conditions within the trucking industry.
Oscar Lobos flags down a trucker as he hands out informational pamphlets during a protest outside of the Alpine Silica sand mine on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Monahans.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Oscar Lobos flags down a trucker as he hands out informational pamphlets during a protest outside of the Alpine Silica sand mine on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Monahans.
Leticia Salas, a driver, holds a protest sign outside of Halliburton’s regional office on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Odessa.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Leticia Salas, a driver, holds a protest sign outside of Halliburton’s regional office on Monday, July 1, 2024, in Odessa.

Randel said there are loopholes in the law that can significantly prolong a driver’s shift. Truckers have to wait in hours-long lines at drilling sites to collect frac sand, for example, and the time they spend waiting does not count toward their pay.

Drivers deal with similar wait times when delivering their cargo. Drivers can’t abandon their place in line, no matter how long the wait is — if they do they could be fined, suspended or fired.

Many truckers also foot repair costs when their contracts do not include insurance.

“I couldn’t afford tires or oil changes,” said Luis Ramirez, one of the protesters Monday. “My family’s suffering because of this. The money’s not enough.”

Drivers made similar grievances last year in August. Approximately 20 truckers held signs outside sand mines in Kermit and refused to fulfill their deliveries for one day to pressure their employers into improving the terms of their contracts. They wanted pay for every hour they spent on the truck and demanded restroom facilities at every well site requiring sand deliveries.

Two days later, about 30 truckers were fired from their jobs, workers told The Texas Tribune. One of them was Cesar Lopez, a 27-year-old truck driver from El Paso.

In 2022, Lopez saved up $3,500 while working as a forklift operator to obtain a commercial driver's license, which is required for anyone who wants to sit behind the wheel of a truck. Through social media, he came across a sand-hauling job paying handsome wages and was hired for it. He called it a stroke of luck for someone with his experience.

The long wait times in and out of the oil fields eventually dampened his enthusiasm. One shift lasted 18 hours, just waiting to unload sand, Lopez said. He and other truckers use buckets or the open fields as restrooms when there are no facilities.

Most contracts only pay for the delivery, meaning truckers aren’t paid for the time they spend driving and waiting in lines. The company paid Lopez $120 for that delivery, he said.

Lopez participated in last year’s protest and lost his job two days later. Lopez said the company told him at the time he was fired because business was slow but he believes it was related to his participation in the protest.

Lopez eventually found a new job. Nowadays he calls his belly dump truck home. Parked in a gas station in Pecos near the site of a road construction project, he sleeps in a twin-sized bed squished in the space behind the two front seats of his truck.

He and 18 other truckers who were fired last year filed federal complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that investigates labor practices. In the complaints, drivers allege several companies retaliated against them for protesting, including 5F-Superhighway Platform, a digital application that matches truckers to third-party carriers, and transportation firms LoHi Logistics, Boomerang Delivery Services Inc., Cegre Trucking, CSM Navarros, J.C. Logistics, Maessa Transportation, Mister M&K Trucking LLC, Petrus and Amus, RBB Transportation and V&F Logistics.

The board has assigned an investigator to interview the workers and companies. If the board finds wrongful labor practices, the complaints will be heard in court.

A representative for 5F declined to comment.

Brandon Horton, a driver for Allied Eagle Transports, monitors the transfer of a load of salt water, a byproduct of fracking, to a salt water disposal site on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, south of Midland.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Brandon Horton, a driver for Allied Eagle Transports, monitors the transfer of a load of salt water, a byproduct of fracking, to a salt water disposal site on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, south of Midland.
Semi-trucks park in a Love’s truck stop on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Odessa.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Semi-trucks park in a Love’s truck stop on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Odessa.
Trucker Marlon Lawe smokes a cigar at the end of his shift at a Pilot truck stop on Wednesday, June 26, 2024, in Monahans. Lawe feels working in the Permian Basin has been getting tougher as of late. “You’re just not making enough right now [to survive],” Lawe said.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Trucker Marlon Lawe smokes a cigar at the end of his shift at a Pilot truck stop on Wednesday, June 26, 2024, in Monahans. Lawe feels working in the Permian Basin has been getting tougher as of late. “You’re just not making enough right now [to survive],” Lawe said.

The relationship between truckers and the energy industry is largely indirect. Oil and gas companies don’t generally contract drivers. Rather, they rely on providers or third-party carriers to hire drivers, establish work schedules and set pay. One provider can contract hundreds, if not thousands, of truckers.

Currently, the number of licensed truckers isn’t enough to fill vacant jobs across the country, a trend truckers said is a consequence of the low wages and working conditions.

Chris Spear, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations, told Congress in 2023 that the trucking industry faces “an alarming driver shortage.” The number of qualified drivers needed nationwide reached 78,000 last year, a record high. He said that number is likely to double by 2031.

In Texas, trucking accounts for 800,000 jobs, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. One in every 14 jobs in Texas is a trucking position. By the end of the decade, the state will need 160,000 more drivers, said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association.

“We are losing a generation of drivers, and we aren’t replacing them with a generation of potential drivers that is large enough in Texas or in the United States,” Esparza said.

Multiple reasons contribute to the shortage. He said lawmakers have failed to create incentives to attract new drivers. Other factors include “underrepresentation of women and lifestyle preferences that preclude many jobseekers from considering long haul trucking,” he said.

James Beauchamp, president of the Midland Odessa Transportation Alliance, said regional efforts to hire more truckers are in play, including more training programs for aspiring drivers. He said the programs have helped but not enough to keep up with the demand.


From The Texas Tribune