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‘This used to be a great job’: US truckers driven down by long hours and low pay

‘This used to be a great job’: US truckers driven down by long hours and low pay

Industry bosses complain they can’t hire drivers but workers say they’re underpaid and treated ‘like trash’
Tim Clemons has driven nearly 3m miles around the US in his 30 years as a truck driver. “This used to be a great job,” said Clemons. “I provide a valuable service to this country. It would be nice if we weren’t looked down upon like trash.”

While the industry says there is a national shortage of drivers and complains regulation is holding back hiring, Florida-based Clemons has another theory: working conditions have deteriorated since he started driving, he said. It’s more difficult to find parking and access to bathrooms. Dispatchers and brokers are pushing harder to deliver loads in a certain amount of time or else drivers face fines or deductions. Drivers earn less.

All these factors may explain why annual turnover at big trucking employers averaged 94% between 1995 and 2017. And that’s before Covid upended the supply chain and increased demand for drivers, and the pressures they face.

Most facilities Clemons drives to do not provide bathrooms for truck drivers, and many truck stops are backed up with wait times to refuel and use the bathroom.

“If you haven’t found a place to park by 2 or 3pm in a truck stop, you’re looking for any place to park, yet we’re fined and towed for just trying to be safe,” Clemons said. “When you have a 300-mile run and six to seven hours to be there, you don’t have time to waste, so either you’re late or you’re on time and refused use of the facilities. As nasty as it may sound, most of us experienced drivers carry garbage bags and a five-gallon bucket, or a potty chair with plastic grocery bags.”

According to the American Trucking Associations, the lobbying organization for large trucking employers, the US has a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers that is disrupting the nation’s supply chains, and the shortages are projected to worsen over the next few years.

This claim has been repeated consistently over the years and has recently been cited by industry groups in favor of a bill in Congress to lower the commercial driver’s license age requirement from 21 to 18. But truck drivers are quick to highlight the low pay, poor treatment and tough working conditions they endure throughout the industry as prevailing issues for employers who claim to have trouble finding and retaining enough drivers.

“The industry has recycled this narrative about every three months for over 20 years. There is no truck driver shortage,” said Desiree Wood, the president of Real Women in Trucking. “It is indeed a pay shortage and work conditions issue.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published an article in March 2019 discussing the widespread and constant claims of labor shortages in the trucking industry, but found that if wages rise in the industry, any long-term labor shortages would be improved. “As a whole, the market for truck drivers appears to work as well as any other blue-collar labor market,” the report concluded.

Darrell Kirkland, a truck driver based in Georgia for 31 years, explained the various ways in which truck drivers are taken advantage of by operators and shipping receivers, such as working several hours a day without pay due to waiting to pick up or drop off loads. He has waited up to 36 hours, with typical wait times of several hours.

“Most drivers don’t get paid for the detention times,” said Kirkland. “A trucking company may allow their customers a two- to three-hour time period, before they start charging detention. So that waiting time the driver doesn’t get paid for and it uses up the driver’s available hours to drive for the day.”

Truck drivers are often charged lumbar fees by receiving companies to unload freight, and won’t allow drivers to unload trucks themselves, adding more unpaid time to drivers’ schedules.

“Most driver pay is pay per mile, but it varies from one company to another,” added Kirkland. “If the wheels aren’t turning, the driver isn’t earning.”

Nearly 2 million Americans work as truck drivers, a rate that has steadily increased over the years from about 1.57 million truck drivers in 2000. States issue more than 450,000 commercial driver’s licenses per year.

While more Americans are working as truck drivers, wages have drastically declined since the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which deregulated the US trucking industry.

When adjusted for inflation, median wages for truck drivers in 1980 were about $110,000 annually. In 2020, median annual wages for truck drivers were $47,130. Nearly 40% of US truck drivers were covered by union contracts in 1983, which dropped to 10.1% in 2020. Many trucking companies also misclassify drivers as independent contractors, shifting overhead costs on to workers and burdening them with massive amounts of debt for their vehicles, gas and fees.

Billy Randel, a truck driver based in the New York area for decades and chief organizer of Truckers Movement for Justice, explained that most truck drivers work 60 to 70 hours a week without overtime pay, as many of the hours are unpaid wait times, from waiting to load and unload, to department of transportation inspections, or having to clean out trailers before picking up a new load.

“We’re fed up and we’re tired of having no voice and we’re the power in the industry. Nothing moves without us,” said Randel. “There are too many drivers out here who are homeless and they stay on the road because they have no place to live.

“There are too many drivers that actually qualify for federal food-stamp assistance. We want to end the sharecropping outright, and take back the power drivers once had when we were organized many decades ago.”
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