Look Before Leaping

| June 01, 2005

Heavy machinery hauler Dave Adams, who drives for CBS Transport, says you should ask if your company allows you to take your truck home when you have time off.

The jobs are here. Get the keys, get in the truck, get the freight and go earn some money. That’s what truck drivers, their employers and everybody else wants because the trucking industry gets paid and America runs when the trucks roll.

But before moving into the truck, while still in orientation, you’ll be smart to take some time to read and understand the contract into which you’re entering with your employer. Not all driving jobs are the same. Do yourself and your prospective employer a favor; make sure you can meet their needs and they can meet yours, because contracts that can’t be fulfilled waste time and money and create hassles for all involved parties.

If you don’t know what to look for, start at the beginning. How are you going to get to work and back home again? “I get to take the truck home all the time,” says Dave Allen, company driver for CBS Transportation. Allen lives in Salem, Ohio, and CBS is in Portage, Ind. “I don’t take a car to work,” he says. “Most of the time they get a load on the way, and I drop the trailer in a truckstop and park the truck next to the house.” This works out fine for CBS and Allen, but he made sure they agreed to that when he took the job.

All trucking companies have rules that spell out when a driver can and cannot take the truck home for time off. You will be asked to agree to the rules during the hiring process. In most cases the distance between the terminal and your home decides the question. If it’s more than a set number of miles, you can take the truck. If it’s less, you have to provide your own transportation. The number of miles changes from company to company.

If you take the truck home for time off, do you get mileage pay? “If my last load before going on break is over 200 miles from home, then they have to pay my mileage,” says Erik Gaul of La Porte, Texas. “If it’s less than 200 miles, then they buy the fuel.” Gaul is an owner-operator who leases his ’99 Freightliner to Oakley Trucking in Little Rock, Ark. A trucking firm might allow its company drivers use of the trucks to drive home and back, but certainly not all company drivers get paid for that mileage.

Time off is another question: how much do you get, and when? This is a major issue among company drivers, especially those with spouses and children. It also can get a little complex, depending not only on the company but also on the type of job: local, regional, dedicated or over-the-road. Look for the company’s home-time policy in the agreement, and make sure it suits your needs.

Talk with company representatives, because often they can guarantee that the loads you’ll get will take you by your house more frequently, especially if you live near a major freight corridor. “We’re guaranteed time off every other weekend,” says John Norton of Richmond Hill, Ga. “But the way freight runs on I-95, which runs by my house, I was home three times last week.” Norton’s employer, Raven Transport of Jacksonville, Fla., is able to provide its drivers with freight that gets them home more often. “A lot of the guys get home every week,” Norton says. “It helps if you live right by the major freight lanes.”

Norton’s situation is the best for drivers with families, because some companies pay their OTR drivers more than local or regional drivers. In other words, there’s a tradeoff: more home time for lower pay. Try to work it so you get the optimal pay of an OTR driver and still get home as often as you’d like to or need to.

Trucking companies are keenly aware of this issue and often conduct their hiring processes accordingly. For example, if the company needs drivers to haul freight in a specific region, they will offer sign-on bonuses to drivers who live there. This is a win-win situation. The drivers get home more often and are happier. They keep their jobs longer, which benefits the company.

Read the agreement. The company might make an offer that pays you more and suits its needs better. If not, do some research, because other companies might have a position that better suits your needs.

Emergency home time is something else to look at during hiring, and again, the company should gladly make you aware of their policies in this area. Most companies reassure their drivers that if they have a crisis at home and need to go, they’ll be allowed to, but it’s good to make sure about this. “They’re good about accommodating drivers’ emergency needs due to the fact that we have regular loads, and we all take them all the time,” Norton says about his employer, Raven Transport. “Every driver has made every run, so if one driver has to take some time off, another driver can fill in.”

Having ascertained how and when you will get from home to work and work to home, read and understand the part in your contract that describes how you’re going to get paid or, as most contracts call it, “compensated.” This issue is deceptive: you drive, you get paid. But no two driver compensation policies are the same. Find out how much your compensation will be. This can vary a lot from company to company and even from job to job in the same company.

But more importantly, find out exactly what you get compensated for doing. “We get paid every Friday,” says Allen. “We get paid for everything we do. We get paid for loading and unloading. It’s a good set up,” he says.

Is the pay the same when you’re empty as when you’re loaded? With some companies the pay is the same either way, but not with all of them. “We get paid so much for loaded miles and so much for dead-heading,” Allen says.

Does the company pay extra for HAZMAT or over-sized loads? “We get an extra nickel a mile if it’s over-height and another extra nickel if it’s overweight,” Allen says. “And if you’re on an over-sized load, you make an extra $50 a night after the first night.”

How about drop pay? Most companies don’t pay extra for one drop, but they do pay drivers extra for loads with two or more drops. “Say you have three drops,” Allen says. “After the first drop, you make from $35 to $75 more per drop for the next two drops.”

Trucking companies are usually willing to compensate drivers for the extra work they do. Ask about this during the hiring process. What if you have to move trailers around? Is there drop-and-hook pay? A huge issue in the industry now is detention pay that drivers earn when they sit at a dock for more than two hours. Make sure to find out what you have to do to get the compensation you’ve earned.

Also find out if there’s a clause for per diem. It’s usually a few cents per mile factored into the mileage pay. “They have a per diem added on to their mileage pay,” Norton says of Raven Transport. “It’s about four cents a mile, and it’s tax free.

Equally as important: find out when you get paid. With some companies, the mileage pay is yours as soon as you send the empty call. Others hold payment until they receive the paperwork from the load. Find out when the mileage pay is actually yours.

Trucking companies also offer drivers a wide variety of bonuses, for everything from accumulating a certain amount of miles every month to staying accident free to recruiting new drivers. Drivers regularly get paid for assisting with loading and unloading, passing DOT roadside inspections and even pulling over and shutting down when the roads are dangerous due to bad weather. These policies will be somewhere in the contract you’ll sign at hiring. It’s up to you to make sure you know when you’ve earned extra money. You might even get compensated for signing the contract itself. “They have a $2,000 sign-on bonus,” Allen says. “Every six months for two years we get an extra $500.”

Conversely, the contract will also include things for which drivers might be penalized. For example, “forced dispatch” means if the dispatcher sends you a load, you have to take it. Not all companies have this policy. “Some companies have forced dispatch,” Norton says. “Raven doesn’t, but in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been with them, I’ve never refused a load.” Refusing a load from a company with a forced dispatch policy might not result in termination, but they might just let you sit for a while until they can come up with a load that suits you. Read the contract to find out about forced dispatch. If you don’t see it, ask.

Also in the contract, you may find policies about having pets in the truck, being responsible for equipment signed out to you, routes you’re expected to take, and procedures you’re expected to follow for loading and unloading. Most company driver job descriptions require freight delivery safely and on-time. Make sure you know ahead of time the procedures to follow if you have an accident. After the wreck happens is not the time to learn. Know also the company’s policy about being late. Some employers are unforgiving of drivers who are not on time, but a simple phone call when you know you’ll be late for a pickup or delivery can make all the difference.

There are thousands of different trucking companies with hundreds of different rules, and it would be impossible to cover them all here. The main thing is, consider it part of your job to be aware of the terms of the contract you sign at hiring time before you get into the truck. This will mean savings, increased income and fewer hassles for you and your employer, and it will pave the way for a smooth ride through your career as a truck driver.

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