Wayne Orr did not yet know that his foot was broken as he made his way back from Texas to his home in South Carolina, but he did know that he could not continue pressing the pedals on the tractor-trailer he had been driving.
A new driver only a few months past his training period, he had to sit out for six weeks without pay. Then, when his foot finally healed, he discovered that his company, CRST Expedited, had fired him. Frustrated and needing a paycheck, he found a new job driving for Schneider International, but he was once again stymied: CRST threatened to sue Schneider for hiring him, he said.
“I called CRST, and they told me that they would not take me back and that I had to pay them $6,500 or I could never drive for another company, either,” Orr, 59, said.
He had signed a contract to work for CRST for 10 months in exchange for a two-week training course. If he did not last 10 months, the contract required him to pay the company $6,500 for that training.
Each year, thousands of aspiring truck drivers sign up for training with some of the nation’s biggest freight haulers. But the training programs often fail to deliver the compensation and working conditions they promise. And drivers who quit early can be pursued by debt collectors and blacklisted by other companies in the industry, making it difficult for them to find a new job.
At least 18 companies, employing tens of thousands of drivers, run programs aimed at qualifying trainees for a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. Typically, to get free training, the new hires must drive for the company for six months to about two years, usually starting at a reduced wage.
The companies “sign them into this indentured servitude contract where they basically have to drive and be a profit source for the company,” said Michael Young, a lawyer in Utah representing a former trainee in a lawsuit against CR England, a privately held trucking company that employs about 4,800 drivers.
With e-commerce leading Americans to expect quick delivery, trucking companies face pressure to haul more and do it faster. The American Trucking Associations, a trade association, has warned of a vast truck driver shortage. But researchers and drivers’ representatives maintain that the high turnover occurs because too many large companies fail to make their jobs attractive enough. The industry has been plagued with class-action laws about working conditions and wages, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.
Nine in 10 drivers leave their jobs within a year at large carriers like CRST and CR England, according to the trucking trade group. The companies need a constant flow of new recruits to keep revenue up, and without locking them into a contract, they risk losing their newly trained drivers to competitors offering a higher wage.
“We think paying for CDL school is a great benefit we can offer but not one that we can afford to do if folks do not come work with our team or ultimately pay us back,” said TJ England, chief legal officer of CR England. “If people just want to go to a different company, that’s where we try to protect our investment.”
CRST, an Iowa-based company, would not answer specific questions for this article but said in an emailed statement that its training program “has brought thousands of drivers into the industry who may not otherwise have been able to obtain a commercial driver’s license.” As for Orr’s account, a spokesperson would say only that it omitted key facts.
The New York Times and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization, interviewed more than 30 current and former truckers with direct knowledge of company training programs, including 15 who had gone through them. Almost all 15 left before their contracts were up, despite intending to stick it out. One was given only four days at home in the four months he drove for CRST, just one-quarter of what he said was promised in his contract, according to a complaint filed with the Iowa attorney general’s office.
Others described weeks of unpaid time spent waiting for trainers. Many said they were never told that they would sit for hours, unpaid, while they waited for their trucks to be loaded and unloaded, or even for days to get a new assignment. Many drivers said they were told by the companies that they would make more than they did. Since drivers are paid by the mile, the time spent waiting cut significantly into their paychecks.
In job advertisements and in their pitches to recruits, companies promise earnings of up to $70,000 in the first year and even higher salaries in the future. But the median annual wage for all truck drivers, regardless of experience, was $47,000 in May 2020, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only the top 10% of earners were making above $69,500.
Still, many are attracted to trucking despite its sometimes punishing demands, seeing it as a possible on-ramp to the middle class. New drivers can train at independent schools, which can be expensive, or community colleges, which may take more time. Company training programs are a popular option for those eager for a paycheck right away.
Many large companies start classes weekly; keeping a constant flow of people is crucial. They deputize their drivers, offering referral bonuses for every new person brought on board, and employ recruiters to pursue anyone who has expressed interest. In a training manual filed as an exhibit to a lawsuit in 2021, CRST instructed recruiters, “Create urgency. Tell the applicant we have a ‘few’ spots open. Our school and orientation will fill up quickly.”
At most company schools, trainees typically spend two to four weeks learning in a classroom and in parking lots. Many former trainees said that the instruction was insufficient and that they spent little time in trucks.
Amy Jeschke attended CR England’s program in Indiana in 2019. She went out on the road only twice during her training, she said, and the rest of the time did maneuvers in a yard or memorized what to do on a pre-trip inspection.
“Honestly, we weren’t doing anything for most of the time,” Jeschke, 46, said. “You’re lucky if you got in the truck once a day.”
Joy Skamser, 44, who also attended CR England’s training program in 2019 and lives in southern Illinois, said she felt unprepared to drive, despite earning her commercial driver’s license at the end of the training.
“They do not teach you how to drive a truck; they just teach you how to pass the test, and that’s very dangerous,” she said.
England said the company gave high-quality training to its students that includes time in the classroom, on the driving range and on the road, with skill assessments throughout. Students who fail the assessments are given additional practice, he said.
Once they have earned the license, drivers haul actual loads for their new employers. For typically four to 12 weeks, they are accompanied by a trainer. They earn a set weekly rate, varying by company but often $500 to $800, according to company websites. England said his company’s pay was $560 a week in 2019 and about $784 today.
Trainers may be barely trained themselves, often needing only six months’ experience, and they are allowed to sleep in the back while the new driver is alone in the cab, according to industry experts and many companies.
Jeschke said she finished her training without being able to back up, a crucial skill for truckers. She said she once spent a week at a truck stop, unpaid, waiting for another driver because she did not yet have the expertise to pick up a load on her own.
Frustrated with the working conditions and the low pay, she and Skamser left CR England before their contracts were up and went to work for another trucking company, Werner Enterprises, where they say they were more fully trained.
“I do not have words for how bad it was,” Jeschke said. “They do not care about drivers, only the loads.”
Skamser said a debt collection agency was pursuing her for $6,000 that CR England says she owes for her training.
It is reasonable for companies to want to recoup the cost of training an individual, said Stewart J. Schwab, a professor at Cornell Law School. Still, he noted, like noncompete clauses, these contracts can significantly restrict worker mobility and hinder competition. In 2021, Schwab worked on a proposed law about restrictive employment agreements, such as the ones trucking companies use, with the Uniform Law Commission, a nonpartisan organization that drafts laws for states.
The proposed legislation calls for the repayment of the training cost to be prorated based on when an employee leaves and says it should not exceed the actual cost of the training.
Many major trucking companies do not prorate their charges, meaning a driver who leaves on day one after training would owe the same amount as one let go the day before fulfilling the contract. And companies are generally not made to account for how much they spend on the actual training. In 2019, a judge found that CRST’s charging $6,500 for its training “when in fact the cost was thousands of dollars lower” was a “deceptive practice.”
That finding came as part of a class-action lawsuit that Orr eventually joined. The suit, which contended that drivers were being overcharged for their training and paid less than minimum wage for their hours worked, was settled for $12.5 million in 2021.
Companies can come after drivers for money — or send them to debt collection — regardless of the reasons they leave or are let go. They also can try to prevent drivers from taking other jobs, as CRST did with Orr, lawyers for the drivers say. Such actions effectively deny those who want to leave a company the opportunity to do so and pay off their debt.
A lawsuit filed in 2017 on behalf of drivers contends that eight companies, including CRST and CR England, are conspiring to block drivers under contract from changing jobs. Some companies refuse to release drivers’ records to prospective employers or send letters threatening litigation to competitors who do not abide by a no-poaching agreement, the complaint said.
England described the allegations as meritless but acknowledged in an interview that his company had “sued or threatened to sue some of our competitors for unlawfully interfering with those contractual relationships.”
He said his company’s competitors had “unfairly taken advantage” of the training CR England provides to its drivers.
Worried about being blackballed wherever he went, Orr took out a loan — the lowest interest rate he could find was 14% — and paid CRST. Through the class-action lawsuit, he was funded for about two-thirds of what he had paid.
“That training program is like a money mill to them,” he said. “They pretty much sell you a lot of dreams.”
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