Pay­ing by the mile isn’t fair or safe

The prac­tice en­cour­ages truck­ers to speed and re­sults in un­paid time on the job.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Larry Ka­haner

The truck­ing in­dus­try is in cri­sis for one sim­ple rea­son: It can­not find enough peo­ple to sit be­hind the wheel.

The Amer­i­can Truck­ing Assns., a trade group, es­ti­mates that trucks carry more than 67% of the coun­try’s to­tal freight by weight. Truck­ing is the na­tion’s most im­por­tant mode of com­mer­cial ship­ping.

Cur­rently, there are about 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple with com­mer­cial driver’s li­censes, and 2.6 mil­lion driv­ers are on the road, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics. That may sound like a lot, but the ATA and oth­ers es­ti­mate that we’re short 35,000 to 40,000 driv­ers, and they be­lieve that short­fall will ex­pand to 240,000 driv­ers by 2022. Many car­ri­ers have trucks sit­ting idle be­cause there’s no one avail­able to drive them; many want to buy new trucks but won’t do so for the same rea­son. Car­ri­ers need more op­er­a­tors to ful­fill ship­per re­quests not only as the econ­omy ex­pands, but also as it stands now.

The short­age is most acute in long-haul op­er­a­tions. How­ever, it is now af­fect­ing short haul and re­gional car­ri­ers as well as drayage trucks that do short hops be­tween, say, a rail- head and a nearby port. The driver short­age also hurts other trans­porta­tion modes such as ocean ship­ping and rail, which rely on trucks to carry their freight “the last mile.”

The in­dus­try has tried to mit­i­gate the short­age by of­fer­ing driv­ers sign­ing bonuses and shorter routes so they can be home more of­ten, pay­ing the cost for com­mer­cial driver’s li­cense train­ing, reach­ing out to ex-mil­i­tary, women and im­mi­grant groups, and pay­ing more for ten­ure. Car­ri­ers say th­ese in­cen­tives help only in­cre­men­tally and the short­age is not abat­ing.

There are sev­eral rea­sons for the short­fall. First, driv­ers are older, on av­er­age, than the gen­eral work­ing pop­u­la­tion, 49 ver­sus 41.9 years, and many are re­tir­ing be­cause they can no longer keep up with the phys­i­cal de­mands of the job. Young peo­ple are not sign­ing on to re­place the folks who are leav­ing.

Sec­ond, fed­eral reg­u­la­tions have cut back on the num­ber of hours that a driver may spend be­hind the wheel, so ad­di­tional driv­ers are needed to pick up the slack.

The most im­por­tant rea­son, how­ever, be­comes ob­vi­ous if you ask driv­ers di­rectly. They’ll say the prob­lem is how they get paid. Not how much, but how.

Con­sumers may not re­al­ize that driv­ers are paid by the mile and not the hour. This means that they make no money for sit­ting in traf­fic or wait­ing at a ware­house.

It is not un­com­mon for a trucker to pull into a ware­house a few min­utes af­ter it closes and sleep in his truck un­til it opens the next day. This is time on the job but not money in his pocket. As one driver told me, “Be­cause pay­ment is by the mile, ware­housers and oth­ers don’t re­spect driv­ers’ time. Any in­ef­fi­ciency in their op­er­a­tion — and even from my own car­rier — is soaked up by the driver at no cost to any­one else.”

Pay­ing by the mile is both un­safe and un­fair. It en­cour­ages truck­ers to speed in or­der to make money. Get­ting paid by the mile, more­over, means truck­ers never know how much they will make for any given week (they can’t pre­dict break­downs, traf­fic, weather or man­made de­lays at ware­houses). Driv­ers re­port that in­con­sis­tent pay is even more of a draw­back than low pay.

While the sim­ple an­swer is to pay driv­ers by the hour in­stead of by the dis­tance trav­eled, car­ri­ers are re­luc­tant to do so be­cause it would mean a dis­lo­ca­tion of their busi­ness model, which dates to the 1930s when the truck­ing in­dus­try looked very dif­fer­ent than it does to­day. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt ex­empted truck­ing from the Fair La­bor Stan­dards Act, which man­dated a min­i­mum wage.

I have found only one car­rier that pays by the hour, Dupré Lo­gis­tics in Lafayette, La. Started as a tank truck hauler in 1980, the com­pany has 1,200 driv­ers and 600 trucks. About 15 years ago, the com­pany re­al­ized that even though it was fol­low­ing the rules gov­ern­ing how many hours a trucker could be on the road, its driv­ers were fa­tigued, and there­fore ac­ci­dent prone.

“We were com­pli­ant, and we were legal, but we weren’t safe,” Reg­gie Dupré, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, told me. To keep driv­ers alert, the com­pany moved to a sched­ule that would al­low them shorter stints on the road. And to save driv­ers from los­ing in­come be­cause of the new scheme, the com­pany de­cided to pay by the hour in­stead of by the mile.

Dupré re­ports that the com­pany’s crash rate plum­meted. Dupré also says the com­pany has at­tracted ex­pe­ri­enced, re­li­able driv­ers. Peo­ple want to work for there, and it has no short­age of ap­pli­cants. The com­pany’s driver turnover hov­ers around 17% in an in­dus­try where more than 90% is com­mon.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion es­ti­mated in 2012 that fa­tal crashes of large trucks and buses cost the U.S econ­omy $40 bil­lion that year. Fa­tigue and speed­ing are ma­jor crash fac­tors. It’s bet­ter for ev­ery­one if driv­ers don’t have to en­gage in danger­ous be­hav­ior just to clock more miles, in the name of sim­ply mak­ing a living.

Larry Ka­haner is a writer who has been cov­er­ing the trans­porta­tion, truck­ing and lo­gis­tics in­dus­try for more than 20 years.

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