Taking Their Lumps

| April 11, 2005

“We haven’t filed any suits since then,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA. “Those suits were about forcing drivers to pay – coercion. We haven’t had those issues surface in a while. I’m sure those are still going on.”

Spencer says the real cure to loading and unloading delays will have to come out of Washington. A law or initiative that places value on a driver’s time could put the onus on the shipper and receiver, he says.

A Day in the Life of a Freight Handler
Clifton Flint likes the one job most truckers love to hate: loading and unloading. As a freight handler for the past 10 years, Flint says there’s not much he doesn’t like about his job. “What’s not to like?” he asks. “I get home early in the afternoon and have the whole afternoon to do what I want to do.”

Flint is one of a new breed of loaders and unloaders. While he’s still paid by the load, he works for a company, Freight Handlers Inc. in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., and has benefits. Of the companies that back up a truck to his dock near Atlanta, about 50 percent have contracts with his company for loading and unloading. The rest are handled with relatively little issue. The price for his services is set. And some drivers actually request him.

While some docks still use day laborers who receive no benefits, many warehouses are turning to professional loading services, says Dell Hamilton, owner of Crusader Services, a freight handling service. Most employees actually come from the same general labor pool as construction workers and seasonal truck drivers. Some come from the service industry, and some are former independent loaders.

Like trucking, freight handling jobs pay on an incentive basis; where most truckers get paid by the mile, most freight handlers get paid by the load.

“People can work a labor job without any real experience and make $18,000 to $23,000 a year unloading,” Hamilton says. Some lumpers can make quite a bit more.

Lumping, like trucking, has its seasonal peaks – typically August to mid-December, when the retail season is strong. For Flint, who works at a food and retail goods warehouse, things start cooking around October, when Thanksgiving food begins to arrive.

“I make a good living doing this,” he says. “You got to work for it, though. You can’t take your time.”

Flint works from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, averaging about eight loads a day. A typical load may take as little as 15 minutes to unload, while others, where a forklift can’t be used, can take hours.

Having worked at the same place for 10 years, Flint is an exception. Turnover at unloading companies is high, about 40 percent, but still lower than the average for drivers. Demand is also high, and the rewards for hard workers can be great. “When they come to work, they typically have to double their speed,” Hamilton says. “Then they’ll start making their money. We’ve got guys that are averaging $25 an hour.” Others, working slowly under a piecemeal rate, “barely make minimum wage.”

Whether lumping is piecemeal depends on the city and the commodity, and independent contractors still dominate some docks. But for those who work for loading services, pay is consistent, and limited benefits are available. Crusader Services, for example, offers its employees health insurance. The coverage isn’t extensive, Hamilton admits, but it’s better than what most freight handlers have access to.

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