Written by Steve Viscelli, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trucking. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
The Fourth of July marks when people – those with decent jobs anyway – start taking vacation to reconnect with loved ones and friends they have missed for want of time.
The holiday also is the perfect opportunity to understand the plight of long-haul truckers. It is just one of the many holidays, special occasions, weekends and nights at home with loved ones that truckers sacrifice to do their jobs.
If you want to understand the industry’s turnover problem, take a minute this July 4th to imagine you are one of the tens of thousands of truckers who will be stranded at a truck stop this holiday weekend. Normally you are paid by the mile, but since you can’t deliver or pick up freight for a day or two over the weekend, you’ll probably end up working for a guaranteed minimum weekly payment or layover pay.
The Fourth of July is thus doubly insulting. You are missing time at home. Forget about the now-mythical “time and half” or “double-time” many U.S. workers used to get for working holidays; you are probably earning half what you normally do. And, unlike others who are looking forward to a week or two of summer vacation after July 4, you aren’t because you don’t get paid vacation and you certainly can’t afford to not work for a week.
Imagine how experiencing the Fourth of July like that would make you feel about your long-term career choice.
Let me illustrate what that might be like using a story from “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” University of California Press, a book I published this year. I spent 10 years researching the book, including a six-month stint working as an over-the-road driver for a major truckload firm.
During my time as a driver, I had the unfortunate experience of spending July 4th on the road. I typically spent two weeks at a time on the road. And the week leading up to the holiday, I had a string of really good loads. I drove more than 3,400 miles, 3,183 of them paid. And I earned almost $1,000. Then my luck ran out. Here’s how I recounted the experience in my book.
On Monday, July 4th, things turned bad. I spent the morning performing the unpaid work required to drop [a] trailer of Gatorade in Tipp City [Ohio]. After I backed into the dock for live unloading by warehouse staff, I immediately sent in a form message via the satellite computer prematurely reporting that the load was complete (a strategy I regularly employed to reduce my waiting time). I began doing paperwork. After fifteen minutes, I still had not received a new load assignment. This was not a good sign. I sent a text message asking for a new assignment to the unknown “third shift” workers who would be covering my dispatch over the long holiday weekend and waited. Several hours later, long after pulling out of the dock empty but still sitting in the warehouse parking lot, I received my next load assignment. I needed to drop the empty trailer, and bobtail (drive without a trailer) 170 miles to Louisville, Kentucky, pick up a preloaded trailer of automotive glass, and haul it 210 miles to a factory near Columbus, Ohio. The glass was scheduled for delivery on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. I did a trip plan for the load and realized I would be thirty miles outside Columbus that night—Monday night—at 6:00 pm. That meant I would be sitting unpaid for more than forty-two hours. In the previous week I earned an average of more than $130 a day. For Monday’s driving I would earn a little under one hundred dollars. Tuesday I would earn nothing. And Wednesday I would be lucky to earn fifty dollars by the time I dropped the glass and picked up another load. I texted third shift about moving up the delivery time and was told nothing could be done until the next day—the customer was closed for the holiday.
After a hard week on the road, my physical and mental state are being tested by the cumulative fatigue that results from a string of long days and the boredom of staring out at thousands of miles of interstate pavement. My clothes and bunk sheets reek of raw and burned diesel fuel. My supply of homemade frozen meals and fresh fruit has run out. I’m now faced with eating overpriced truck stop food for the next four or five days. So on July 4th I find myself outside Columbus, Ohio, sitting atop a concrete parking barrier, looking at a fallow farm field and eating what is undoubtedly the worst Chinese fast food I’ve ever tasted. My wife calls to tell me everyone at the family barbeque back in New York says hello. Friday is her birthday and our fifth wedding anniversary. She asks whether we can plan on going out Friday night. I tell her I’m hopeful I’ll be home Friday evening, but I won’t know anything until I get my next load assignment on Wednesday. Even then I may not know for certain whether I will be home Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. As we say goodnight, the tone of her voice tells me the report does not please her. Time apart is difficult for truckers and their families, and I’m no exception. What I have going for me, as a relative who drove trucks for a few years told me when I started this research, is that I know I’ll only be doing this for a few months. But the temporary nature of my life as a trucker is little comfort as I sit for another half hour and watch the glow of fireworks on the horizon.
I spent July 5th at the same truck stop, just killing time reading and watching “Law and Order” reruns in the lounge. My experience of July 4th and 5th was not an accident, it was the regular and predictable outcome of the way driver labor is used by carriers and demonstrates how drivers are treated.
Again from my book:
Days like this tell you something as a trucker. They say: your time is not important. Your paycheck is not important. Whether you are home with your family for special events and holidays is not important. You are not important.
High turnover has defined the industry for decades now. The turnover toll is vast and enormous. The price tag includes recruitment and training costs, less efficient and less safe drivers, trucks without drivers and more. It affects nearly every aspect of carriers’ operations and amounts to billions of dollars a year. Many in the industry claim they are trying by any means to reduce turnover, including strategies such as driver appreciation events, guaranteed home time and weekly pay. And I am sure those in the industry proposing or implementing these “solutions” think they understand the problem. But my guess is they don’t.
Carriers often do their damndest to convince themselves of what they hope is true: that there is a solution to driver turnover that doesn’t require paying drivers significantly more or changing the way drivers are assigned work. This is why industry management is so quick to cite “lack of respect” as the top reason drivers leave their company. I hear this from managers all the time.
If turnover consultants and carriers actually spent time talking to drivers, let alone experiencing what it is like to be a driver, they would see that turnover is about disrespect for drivers. Any disrespect on the part of drivers is borne from legitimate causes such as low pay and lack of time at home – things felt more poignantly at this time of year when we are celebrating our nation’s birthday with friends and family while drivers are out on the road or cooling their heels at some lonely truck stop.
Editor’s note: Steve Viscelli is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” University of California Press. He also does consulting for government agencies, non-governmental organizations and private firms to develop insights on freight-related problems.