I met Claudio at a Midwestern truck stop just before the Great Recession. At the time, I was a sociology grad student trying to understand how long-haul trucking had gone from one of the best blue-collar jobs in the U.S. to an industry one economist said consisted of “sweatshops on wheels.” And at the time, Claudio was puzzling over the number on the paycheck he had just received for the 80 hours he had worked over the course of seven days: $41.58.
The reason Claudio was angry and frustrated was that in his previous trucking job, he had made about $800 a week, and a recruiter from the new company he was working with—one of the largest and most profitable trucking firms—had promised twice that, for driving the same number of miles. But what changed when Claudio, whose last name has been omitted because that is the standard practice in the field of sociology, switched companies was his employment status: He had gone from an employee to an independent contractor.
In many ways, this brought him the obligations of formal employment and few of the perks. One of the things that had drawn him to this new job was the promise of more control over when and where he drove. Now, Claudio was responsible for nearly all of the costs associated with driving his truck, which he was leasing from a subsidiary of his new company. Under his lease agreement, he wasn’t allowed to work for any other companies, and the company decided all of the loads he was to haul. Yet at the same time, the company paid Claudio as if he were self-employed, meaning it didn’t make contributions on his behalf to Social Security, Medicare, worker’s compensation, or unemployment insurance.