Taking Their Lumps

| April 11, 2005

Though conditions at loading docks have improved, drivers still face long waiting times, unfair receiver policies and occasional conflicts with lumpers.

In the 43 years trucker Jim Nodine spent on the road, nothing was as frustrating as showing up on time to deliver a load and being told to cool his heels – often for 10 or even 12 hours.

“The worst situation is arriving on time and then waiting,” says the recently retired driver. “Sitting around all day trying to get loaded and finally around 7 or 8 p.m. they get you loaded and tell you that you have a 5 a.m. appointment some 600 miles up the road.

“Shippers or consignees don’t seem to pay any attention to the fact that drivers operate under federal regulations. I walked into a shipping office, after sitting there for several hours, and asked, ‘When are you going to get me loaded? I got 1,200 miles to run, and my appointment is 18 hours from now.’ The answer, ‘That’s your problem, driver.’”

Eleven-year trucking veteran Russ Rand also knows a thing or two about waiting. Some warehouses he visits will unload or load him within two hours, but others will string him along for most of the day even if he shows up at the appointed time. “They give you an appointment, and if you are more than an hour late, they will turn you away and reschedule you for the next day,” he says. “Yet when you make your appointment, they can ignore you all day if they want with very little repercussion.”

Nodine and Rand are talking about one of the oldest and most persistent problems in the industry: how to get shippers and receivers to unload and load trucks in a manner that improves productivity and doesn’t tie up drivers for hours unnecessarily. Despite favorable operating conditions for carriers, stricter hours for drivers, lumping laws and vast improvements over the rough-and-tumble days of regulation, problems persist at docks even as efforts to improve them continue.

The biggest issues:

  • Appointment times that are ignored by receivers and shippers once the trucker arrives

  • Overlapping appointments – too many trucks and not enough doors
  • Abuse of drivers by receivers
  • Lumping practices that are expensive and, occasionally, illegal.

“This is the biggest problem in trucking today,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association. “It’s the biggest issue in hours-of-service compliance, in fatigue and in terms of driver retention. It’s the biggest issue in terms of driver profitability.”

Change in the air
The issue isn’t just an owner-operator problem – it tops the agendas of groups like the Truckload Carriers Association, which produced two key studies of waiting times and loading practices in the late 1990s and manages a joint committee devoted to improving wait times with the National Industrial Transportation league, the leading shipper association.

As part of its shipper and carrier relations effort, TCA has developed a best practices guide for loading and unloading. One recommendation suggests that receivers do away with specific appointment times for open windows when a delivery can be made. Other recommendations include increasing trailer pools for drop and hook operations, developing incentive programs for shippers and receivers who load and unload quickly, and making more delivery times during weekends and nights available.

TCA says progress is being made. “There has been significant improvement in our industry,” says Jim O’Neal, president of O&S Trucking in Springfield, Mo., and chairman of TCA’s Carrier/Shipper Relations Committee.

The improvements O’Neal is referring to are recent. When the new hours-of-service rule was announced in 2003, carriers went on the offensive with shippers, arguing the new rule would have a catastrophic affect on the availability of drivers and trucks since capacity was already tight.

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