Taking Their Lumps

| April 11, 2005

“Once I had a 4 p.m. appointment at a certain food warehouse,” Nodine says. “I arrived at 3 p.m., and it was midnight before they ever gave me a door.”

Looking to the future
The current economic conditions and the attention to productivity being paid by both carriers and shippers are helping. Drivers readily admit that conditions have improved. How far those improvements go may be determined by how much leverage carriers have over shippers and how long the driver shortage continues. The trucking industry is facing a current shortfall of 80,000 drivers, and that number will rise dramatically in coming years. So trucking companies will be paying more attention to issues, like loading and unloading delays, that drive truckers from the industry.

The issue also may receive the attention of Congress (again) and the FMCSA. OOIDA has been pushing legislation as part of its agenda for years, and the FMCSA may soon require carriers to use electronic on-board recorders to track logbooks. With EOBRs, delays at shippers and receivers may be impossible to hide. Fleets will be forced to address detainment by increasing fines or rates. If they don’t, drivers won’t get enough miles to make a living and will leave for carriers that don’t face waiting issues. Drivers already list waiting delays as one of the top reasons they change carriers, and it contributes to the high turnover rate at some carriers, according to TCA’s research.

“Once I waited over 12 hours to be unloaded and finally cut loose from the trailer and took the tractor back to the yard and quit the company that I was driving for,” says Nodine, who retired for good largely due to loading issues.

If the trucking industry wants to keep drivers like Nodine, it will have to work harder to improve this aspect or find more drivers willing to take their lumps.

Sittin’ by the Dock
When Dell Hamilton started his first company 15 years ago, lumpers were the scourge of the industry, often coercing bribes out of truckers or refusing to let drivers unload trucks at docks they controlled. Freelance lumpers are still around, but Hamilton says the lumping market is better managed now, with companies employing loaders full time and offering insurance and benefits.

“Fifteen years ago, there were only five unloading services in the country,” says Hamilton, owner of Crusader Services, a Tennessee-based unloading service with 260 employees in five states. As organized services have expanded, freelance lumpers have become full-time employees.

One of the biggest such companies is Freight Handlers Inc. It handles unloading operations for more than 250 carriers, vendors and warehouses. The company contracts directly with carriers to provide freight handling services, and Chief Operating Officer Jon Kitts says where such arrangements exist in the industry, drivers usually find a friendlier dock and get unloaded in a reasonable amount of time.

“There is a wide variety of performance levels at warehouse locations,” Kitts says. “Some distribution operations are focused on productivity, while others haven’t gotten to that level. There’s a wide variety. Some places have a bad reputation getting in and out.”

The reputation often depends entirely on driver perception. When the Truckload Carriers Association interviewed reefer drivers in 1998 for one of its waiting time surveys, drivers said Wal-Mart, Publix, Kraft, Excel and Schwans had the fairest unloading policies. Dry van haulers also praised some of the same receivers. Ironically, among reefer drivers Wal-Mart topped the “most improved” list but also ranked third on the list of receivers that had gotten worse.

Where carriers have pre-arranged unloading contracts with freight handling companies, drivers typically have the fewest complaints. “We offer direct invoicing with carriers,” Kitts says. In those situations, “the driver knows he’s going to get unloaded by a professional at a fair price. It used to be daily supply and demand forces would determine the price.”

Before deregulation, loading and unloading was handled between the driver and the lumper. “You actually dealt with the lumpers themselves,” says veteran trucker Jim Nodine. “But – and it is a strong but – most of the lumpers were in partnership with the receiving department.”

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