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If you live near one of the major U.S. ports, you and your family are probably paying the price for all the goods we import from overseas: filthy air and nearby pockets of poverty resulting from the exploitation of port drivers.

As NPR reported a year ago,

The nation's largest ports have become toxic hotspots in violation of federal clean air standards. The pollution comes from the combination of ships and thousands of idling diesel trucks at ports such as Newark, Los Angeles and Oakland.

Next to the nation's busiest port, Los Angeles, the local air quality board  found a "diesel death zone" where cancer rates are as much as 20 times higher than federal clean air standard. Essex County, N.J., which is home to the Port of Newark, has one of the highest asthma-related mortality rates in the state. Seattle residents who live near the port conducted a survey last year of 230 households and found 63 percent believe truck emissions are making them sickand. 

Mayors Cory Booker of Newark and Michael Bloomberg of New York want cleaner trucks and better-paid drivers.  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa does too. He succeeded in bringing  about a Clean Trucks program two years ago. The program replaced old diesel trucks with clean new ones, and required trucking companies to treat drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. The program significantly improved air quality, but the trucking industry didn't like it one little bit and sued. While the case is wending its way to the Supreme Court, the L.A. Times reports today that the situation for drivers has become desperate.

Jose Mauricio Guzman, 54, who has more than 20 years of port trucking experience, told the Times,  "We no longer have hope to be in the middle class. We are all poor now."

Next door in Long Beach, the unemployment rate is 14.2 percent and a quarter of full-time workers earned less than $25,000 a year in 2009.

And yet, there is a ray of hope. Today we also learned from Transport Topics that the IRS ruled a Southern California trucking company misclassified a truck driver as an independent contractor rather than an employee...

“We conclude that the firm had the right to exercise direction and control over the worker to the degree necessary to establish that the worker was a common-law employee, and not an independent contractor operating a trade or business,” stated the Nov. 4 letter written by Susan Rosenberg, a Holtsville, N.Y.-based IRS employment tax technician.

This could be a big deal. Local, state and federal government agencies are realizing how much revenue they lose when workers are misclassified as independent contractors.  They're starting to crack down on unscrupulous employers who avoid paying workers compensation taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and FICA. Let's hope this is a path to stable employment for the hard-working port drivers.

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